Trans-Siberian Trip Part 8: Breathing in Steppes in Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude

My idea was to take a train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude which will join the Circum-Baikal Railroad, to see Baikal from the other side too. And not by night but in the morning. So we had to wait for the train in Irkutsk at the station and then had some time to sleep before we would see this:

Ulan-Ude
I’ve made several bleak attempts at capturing Baikal from the train window, so don’t mind the wires. I woke up just on time when the train was getting closer to the Lake. The sun was rising, the water gleaming. you don’t see it in the photo but the colour was silver! I woke my friend up. Then we passed through a tunnel. We fell asleep for a moment. And then the Lake appeared once more. The train was following the winding road along the coast, sometimes we would see some village, sometimes abandoned and ruined agricultural constructions.

Ulan-Ude
Where does the sky end?

Ulan-Ude

I even took photos right from the open window in the WC😉 And each time the road would pass through a tunnel I was thinking – this is our last chance to see Baikal, please don’t turn away from the lake now, not yet!

Ulan-Ude
Last glimpse of Baikal at the station justly called Povorot, the Turn, after which the road runs away from the shore:

Ulan-Ude

Irkutsk – Ulan-Ude

distance: plus 456 km

total distance from St Petersburg covered so far: 6865 km

local time: Moscow time + 5 hours

train: our last train Moscow – Ulan-Ude; takes you to Ulan-Ude from Irkutsk in exactly 8 hours.

Somewhere close to Ulan-Ude and already we could sense the steppes and the piping-hot day that was awaiting us:

Ulan-Ude

The landscape was truly impressive, with the river and the villages and the mountains in the background! And the road itself would keep on turning here and there. I think those 8 hours the train takes from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude are due to this turning and turning.

Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic. Which is a part of Russia. And it’s not in Mongolia though Mongolia is very close. I mean it, even some of my Russian acquaintances asked me if I went to Mongolia when I said I was in Ulan-Ude. The name does have a similarity with Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator, both having this Ulan word which means Red (hence Ulan Bator = Red Hero). Both names appeared thanks to the Communists: Ulan-Ude used to be Udinskoye first, then just Udinsk, followed by Verkhneudinsk and finally Ulan-Ude in 1934. All these names contain the name of the river – Uda – on which the city is located. Just as many Soviet cities, Ulan-Ude used to be a closed city for foreigners until 1991. But now that’s it’s open we didn’t see much tourists around apart from Chinese.

Voila, theeee steeeepppeeee right in the city – can you feel it?

Ulan-Ude
The door to the Buryat Republic History Museum:

Ulan-Ude
We we glad to get inside air-conditioned exhibition halls and forget about the heat for a moment. As in a true Soviet museum we were issued several tickets for every hall and in each hall they would check them (and first they would open those halls for us as we were not many in the museum). Thanks God the museum was just several buildings away from our weird hostel (which turned out to be an apartment managed by a young girl. In that heat there was no fan so I won’t even mention the name!), same street. I cannot say that the museum was particularly entertaining (or was it just the heat? or a modest amount of exhibits?) but we saw some curious stuff. And that’s tea there to the left:

Ulan-Ude
Boy was it hot! The city just pressed us down with the heat. The air was hanging there without any movement.

Ulan-Ude
Hot hot hot

Ulan-Ude
Though apparently not that hot enough for these newlyweds!

Ulan-Ude

We were amazed that with such a heat people would walk with no hats, no sunglasses. Kids were running here and there and their parents seemed to be unmoved by the sun and the absence of air. They are just used to that steppe climate! By the way, Buryat people represent 20% of the population in the city. And you can see that this is truly so. Like in Kazan you instantly realize you are in a different setting so to speak. And people speak their language, you see signs written in it. You can also sense that China is definitely close by. There is a traditional boozy (not boozy but bo-o-zy) dumplings offered at every corner. My friend tried some in this super tiny one-room cafe run by a woman who would take the order and go to the kitchen and get it done with another woman. It felt like we were somewhere in another country!

Stalinist heritage on the main square of Ulan-Ude:

Ulan-Ude

Lenin’s head. The only thing that is interesting about it is that this is the largest Lenin’s head in the world. Yes it is. And that’s all about it.

Ulan-Ude
And a sample of the nowadays architecture (this is the local theater):

Ulan-Ude

It’s funny that the modern part of Ulan-Ude is quite limited. And I mean it – there are so many log houses left and inhabited! Whole districts of them. This is an embellished old Siberian house (upper-class, probably a merchant’s house) in the center:

Ulan-Ude

Moving a bit off the city center to the Uda river (which was dirty and certainly NOT refreshing):

Ulan-Ude
A local take on Art-Nouveau-ish windows:

Ulan-Ude

Auuuuthentic:

Ulan-Ude

Mum said this one in particular looks just like her native Rossosh in the South of Russia:

Ulan-Ude

It was so hot and stuffy (or rather – there was just no air to breathe!) that our minds were boiling. We wandered from shade to shade, resorting to shops and cool commercial centers (cool in terms of the temperature and very 90s / Asia-cool too). We got so dizzy with all our energy squeezed out that we went back to the apartment (aka hostel) and stayed there until the evening (helping the host assemble the fan which she finally bought – one for all her guests). Then when we felt we had regained some strength we got on a marshrutka (commercial bus) which took us up  up up to Lysaya Gora (Bold Mountain) where they have their datsan, the Mongolian for the Buddhist university monastery. It was the first time I ever visited one (I know there is one in St Petersburg but I never went inside) and thus could discover for myself another facet of Russia. Ulan-Ude is considered to be the center of Tibetan Buddhism, they say.

Ulan-Ude

Everything felt very unusual in that place – silent and full of some uncertain feeling at the same time (probably because we felt we didn’t belong here?). Local people would ruin the silence a bit with their loud shouting but when we moved away from the parking lot where the city could be admired from above (quite a view)…

Ulan-Ude

…we entered some unknown territory. The monks would walk from one building to another and say Hello to you. The sun went down and there appeared that steppe wind on top of the mountain – but at first it brought almost no change to the stifling air!

Ulan-Ude

These reminded me of Robert Plant’s Heaven Knows video:

Ulan-Ude

It was getting late so we took our marshrutka back (and down) and there it was, Lenin’s head again! Looking quite menacing but at the same time – so lonely and ugly, don’t you think? Poor old Lenin, who would believe back then that his head would become a selfie point of the city…

Ulan-Ude

There were many people in the streets, children included. Everyone was gathered round the fountain as if waiting for something so we went closer to see what’s going on. But nothing was, they were just looking at the fountain.

Ulan-Ude

And then the rain started and we could finally breathe again. We fell asleep to the sound of rain and the railway station.

Ulan-Ude highlights:

Buryat History museum to try to understand the region, its religions and peoples

Lenin’s head to wonder why it is so special apart from being the largest in the world (7.7 meters and 42 tons) and built in 1970 for Lenin’s 100th birthday

Baikal is farther from Ulan-Ude than from Irkutsk but you can see its other ‘side’ if you have time to travel

beautiful nature around the city

view over the city from the datsan on Lysaya Gora (or go to a farther Ivolginsky Datsan)

local food for meat-lovers

Ulan-Ude in a few words: City where you will breathe in the steppe, learn about Buryat’s culture and discover Buddhist Russia.

The next morning we had to part with my brave companion. We took separate planes: one went back to St Petersburg via Moscow and mine made an unexpected stopover in Blagoveschensk and finished in Vladivostok. We flew over China by the way! More about it in my next and last Trans-Siberian post. This is the airport of Ulan-Ude called Baikal airport:

Vladivostok - 1

Goodbye to Baikal! And here’s the reverse of the air ticket. And of coooooourse they take the beautiful part of it and leave you the smaller one to the left:

Vladivostok - 1

My plane took me to the ultimate stop of the trip: Vladivostok.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 7: Majestic Baikal and Irkutsk

Baikal
And yes we did it. We saw Baikal. We were looking forward to meeting it.

Krasnoyarsk – Irkutsk

distance: plus 1088 km

total distance from St Petersburg covered so far: 6409 km (oh dear)

local time: Moscow time + 5 hours

train: train Novokuznetsk – Vladivostok (the only one not departing from Moscow on our trip, besides we were in a separate coach attached to this train in Krasnoyarsk); takes you to Irkutsk from Krasnoyarsk in 16 hours 7 minutes

During our train ride from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk there was heavy rain and thunder and Monet-like views from the train window:

Krasnoyarsk

There were also crowds of Chinese people travelling on the same train with us, some funny moments and a classic snore during the night (remember tip #4 of the Russian Train Tips?). Already off to sleep, we saw some mist there out of the window. We thought it was mist but that was the forest fires. And then there was the sunrise at the station called Zima (Winter). In the morning we were in Irkutsk which won the Most Beautiful Railway Station competition of our trip (before I saw the Vladivostok one).

Baikal

We hastened ourselves to get to Baikal, so we found a family also travelling there from the railways station and took a crazy marshrutka (a shared taxi or a non-state bus) to Listvyanka village and arrived at Baikal in an hour (65 km and just 120 RUB compared to about 3000 RUB for a single ticket on a hovercraft which anyway did not circulate that day as the waster level in the Angara river was not high enough). The very first glimpse of the Baikal Lake:

Baikal

Sea? Yes, it definitely looked and felt like we were at sea. No matter how cold the water was. And that amazing color of the water which was the same as that of the sky, so that you couldn’t really tell one from the other!

Baikal
Listvyanka is very touristy, over touristy to stay there for more than 1-2 days but it’s the surest way to see Baikal when you’re pressed with time. Loads of tourists, particularly annoying were buses and buses of Chinese tourists but Russians were creating quite a noise too. We stayed a bit off the coast at the “Olga’s Guesthouse” which was actually just a room in a host’s house. The host was pretty caring and we appreciated the calmness and family-ness of the house (no picture in this post). We were surprised to find lilac still blossoming in the early days of July all around the Lake. They say that Baikal’s summer is slow to arrive but then it stays on longer so that their autumn is smooth and warm.

Baikal

Baikal’s unpredictable. We got sunburnt after staying on the beach for lunch and yet I cannot say we wanted that much to have a swim (which some more courageous people did do, having their blitz dip into the glacially cold Baikal water). One moment there was sun the next moment there was this, as if someone would open the fridge – or rather a freezer!:

Baikal

God, I could take myriads of photos and none of them would render that subtlety of the Baikal beauty:

Baikal

…and a child’s version in the kindergarten courtyard, called Pobeda (Victory):

Baikal

unbelievably mirror-like delicate

Baikal

Can’t choose, sorry!

Baikal

some authentic corners up there into the hill away from the crowd:

Baikal
let’s hope this was not there for the tourists either:

Baikal - Irkutsk

There where the Natural park begins the nature seem to surround you quite thickly – it’s a pity we did not go any further than the very beginning of it!

Baikal
the Research Biology Institute down there at the waterfront:

Baikal

Morning run along the shore the next day, couldn’t tell the sky from the water again:

Baikal - Irkutsk

Seriously, Baikal rocks!

Baikal - Irkutsk

Ahhr, hard to choose, so hard to choose!

Baikal - Irkutsk

Let’s put this one too🙂

Baikal - Irkutsk

and this one too, showcasing the local arts:

Baikal

This one is to remind me that we were not in Greece (this is what we were asking ourselves from time to time, are we in Greece?):

Baikal - Irkutsk

After our copious breakfast with homemade sweet rice bake we headed off to the nearby Nikola village, to the point where Baikal gives birth to the Angara river – the only river that takes its source from the Lake (and then flows into Yenisey):

Baikal - Irkutsk

Nature again, in the Baikal Tree Park (Dendrary), surrounded by birches, larches and whatnot. And the Baikal gleaming down there:

Baikal - Irkutsk

Later on we also took a boat trip along the coast, a short one but it gave us the idea of how vast and diverse Baikal is. It was windy as hell and we observed the rocks all around us. We were not in a hurry to leave this Siberian pearl:

Baikal - Irkutsk

…with its beauty, rough and delicate all at once:

Baikal - Irkutsk

But we had to get to Irkutsk at least before the sunset to see a bit of the city too. So we left off on a crazy marshrutka (which was even faster!) and had a walk through the center of Irkutsk and then along the river and – already after the sunset – we arrived at the station. On our way we saw a  street where they collected log houses and created somewhat a tourist-trap with cafes, craft shops etc. I cannot say that Irkutsk is still The Paris of Siberia as it used to be called, but it’s obviously big and has some curious atmosphere that I couldn’t really make head or tail of in such short a stay (walk). Irkutsk (the name comes from the river Irkut) certainly preserved some of its authenticity (it was founded back in 1661) which is enhanced by all the peoples flowing into this Siberian hub.

Baikal - Irkutsk

Irkutsk Baikal highlights:

Baikal🙂

The view from the Tree Park (Dendrary) in Nikola village

a boat trip, a longer one if possible to see more of the coast

if possible, get to the Olkhon island or anywhere beyond Listvyanka

we didn’t go to see Nerpinary (where they keep the seals to show to tourists) nor to the Baikal museum nor did we take the tourist train on the Circum Baikal Railroad (though we took a regular one) which are the usual musts

if you’re a fish eater then you should try the endemic fish called omul

old houses in Irkutsk, the Angara embankment

Irkutsk Baikal in a few words: It looks like Irkutsk is there to see Baikal, I’m sorry🙂 And Baikal is serene, fragile and so beautiful! An absolute must, particularly if you’re Russian!

After a plate of buckwheat with smetana in a stolovaya (canteen) near the station we had to wait quite long for the train… which would take us along Baikal shores in the wee hours to the next stop: Ulan-Ude.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 6: Krasnoyarsk and Stolby Park

Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk was the city where I took nearly all my pictures without turning the camera 90′ (which I normally do to cut off the unwanted), I mean you really need the entire width of your lens to capture the dimensions of this city. I was impressed! To look left and see a mountain at one end of the street while looking on the right will result in… yet another distant mountain! And the river is so wide and mighty, the Yenisey. I remember learning the geography of Russia at school and repeating all those beautiful river names, Yenisey, Lena, Amur… and imagining them. They seemed so far and so legendary and utterly unattainable!

Krasnoyarsk

Omsk – Krasnoyarsk 

distance: plus 1389 km (!)

total distance from St Petersburg covered so far: 5321 km

local time: Moscow time + 4 hours

train: train Moscow – Chita (provided you have nice neighbours the longest train run of all we took is just fine); takes you to Krasnoyarsk from Omsk in 21 hours 12 minutes

After quite a ‘promising’ start on the train with a completely drunk ex-military as our upper-bench neighbour being neutralized by a very sympathetic babushka who accepted & cared for him as – sadly – many Russian women do, the longest train run in our journey proceeded as per usual. We saw Novosibirsk railway station in the night and there I told myself that from that moment I was travelling on the ‘unknown’ territory as Novosibirsk was the farthest and deepest into the country I had ever been. All in all we had a good sleep and a nice train-style breakfast (if I remember it right🙂.

Stolby

We then walked fast quite a bit under rain and sun rapidly changing each other, to get to our hostel (the best hostel I’ve ever been to both in Russia and in Europe! And haha, it’s called Hovel Hostel) situated somewhere far off on the never-ending Lenin Street (what a surprise!). It was already midday and I was eager to get to the natural park Stolby just off the city that very day.

Stolby

After gobbling down 2 ice-creams each and asking about everyone where the bus to the park leaves from, we got to the glamour Fun-park Bobrovy Log park instead of the hard-core entrance where you have to climb the hills yourself. I should say taking into consideration our a bit dizzy state after such a long train journey. We had to wait for the cable way to open and meanwhile had our lunch and a relaxed sun bath admiring the Switzerland / Bulgaria (?) like landscape all around us. And no, it didn’t feel like real winter🙂

Stolby

Gosh, I wanted to pat and caress those green blankets and deep green firs!

Stolby

That was the first cable way I’ve ever been on, same for my friend who was born in the mountains. And what effect do the mountain have on someone born in the flat-flat St Petersburg threatened by floods? They make us just happy! You should have heard me on that cable way🙂 The huge Krasnoyarsk was like a mirage from up there:

Stolby

The amount of photos I took during that day were surpassed only by my solitary walk in Vladivostok later in the journey. But these views, oh dear, they were just breath-taking! I felt a bit like on that crazy morning when I climbed the hill in Provence, looking around from the top and feeling the power of the moment:

Stolby

Don’t you want to just run your hand over those hills, eh? And follow that road (don’t think it was glamour all the way, the real road started after) to see the wondrous rock formations called Stolby (Pillars).

Stolby

Oh, nature! (mosquitoes included)

Stolby

I’ve made all this trip to see this…

Stolby

… and many more things of course. But truly, I was impressed! And I loved the smell of the pine trees under the sun… We couldn’t make it even to the nearest Stolby rocks as they were pretty far and we had to ‘catch’ our cable way down (plus the bus to get to the city). But we did make it to the observation points including this very last one (spot several Stolby in the background, called Babushka and Dedushka i Vnuchka (Grandpa and Granddaughter):

Stolby

Riding back to the city across the grand Yenisey river with the setting sun was just right to finish off the day. We also had a tasty melon and some weird Indian snacks from an even crazier Trans-Siberian traveller from India (a girl all alone!). That night in our hostel I slept like a log (at first it felt as if I was still on a train but then I fell asleep) with the rain and Lenin sculpture in our courtyard (he worked in the nearby wooden house as we found out).

Krasnoyarsk

Nest morning we had a long walk in the city itself cause we didn’t see much of Krasnoyarsk the day before. Founded in 1628, Krasnoyarsk (Krasny Yar meaning Red Ravine, after the Khakas Kyzyl Char, red steep-riverbank) is really big, one of the country’s biggest cities, and you can feel that (curiously it’s smaller than Omsk!). It’s region is enormous too (the largest in Russia) and rich in natural resources and wonderful landscapes. And the Yenisey river is grand, I’ve told you that already. We could only cover some tiny bit of the city where we saw marmots in the park (which is on an island), we saw some street art on the late Soviet buildings.

Krasnoyarsk

We also saw some Stalinist-era monsters

Krasnoyarsk

… and all that under rain and then a burning sun. We got lured inside this cozy wooden paradise hidden in the concrete jungles of Krasnoyarsk (after all the city got heavily rebuilt in the Soviet times and is still growing). This little corner of the old Krasnoyarsk turned out to be one of the cutest museums I’ve ever been to, the house of the Russian painter Vasily Surikov.

Krasnoyarsk
The courtyard recreates a typical household with barns and haystacks. The house is manned by lovely ladies (unlike those notoriously unwelcoming babushkas working in some of the St Petersburg museums).

Krasnoyarsk
Very cozy with all those woven rugs (called dorozhka in Russian – a small road, a path) and samovar and flower pots on the windows. And the Russian stove of course. And Surikov’s paintings which I will now pay more attention to next time I visit the Russian Museum.

Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk highlights:

Natural Park Stolby – amazing! stunningly beautiful and worth the climb if you can make it

Surikov’s museum to have a glimpse of the bygone life in Siberia

walk along Yenisey river to sense the dimensions (not only Moscow can boast of these!)

hunting for old houses and churches in the center, from log houses through Art Nouveau to late Soviet era

just wandering in the city and enjoying something different from the flat-flat St Petersburg if you know what I mean

the spectacular Krasnoyarsk Hydroelectric Power Station should be quite a sight too but we didn’t get there

Krasnoyarsk in a few words: Definitely worth the visit both for the out-of-this-world natural park Stolby and the city itself. One of those places in Russia where you feel as if you’re somewhere else.

And now that I’ve squeezed in so many photos (and left out so many of them, ah) and exclamation marks, I can turn to sharing with you my impressions of the next stop: Irkutsk.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

Lemon-Gooseberry Bars

August Improvisations

I’ve made these bars with whole lemon and gooseberries recently and my family liked them. There’s no particular recipe for them as it was a part of my improvisations with the ingredients I had at the moment. There was this lonely lemon hanging out in the fridge for some time and those 30% sweet – 70 % sour gooseberries from our dacha🙂 And some butter in the freezer! The dough recipe was inspired by this friend’s recipe here, I just used less butter, omitted soda+vinegar and added some spices to the dough. The lemon part of the filling was inspired by another friend’s recipe where it is the only fruit component.

August Improvisations

1 year agoGreek Olive Buns and Breadsticks

2 years agoSpanakopita and Mediterranean Vegetable Millefeuille

3 years agoSummer Goes On with Sourdough Mini-Rolls

4 years agoPommes. Pommes de Terre too

Lemon-Gooseberry Bars will make soft pie-like bars with a tangy summer berry flavour.

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 100 g butter from the freezer
  • 3-5 glasses of flour
  • spices like cardamom
  • 1 whole lemon
  • gooseberries – I had a mixture of red & black gooseberries
  • 1 Tb cornstarch
  • sugar and spices, to taste

Procedure:

  1. First, mix cold butter with sugar and add eggs. Add a cup of flour and spices and see how it goes. You might need about 2 cups for the dough to be malleable but thick. Turn the pastry onto a surface and divide in two equal parts (balls), wrap them in plastic foil or put them in two plastic bags and then of they go into the freezer for about one hour. The more you chill them, the easier the grating.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Wash the lemon thoroughly, cut it in pieces and take out the seeds. Then put the pieces in the blender and wheeze them to achieve the result you want (bigger / smaller pieces). Add sugar to taste (about 3/4 of a cup I guess) and spices (ginger, mm?) and berries cleaned from all the stalks. Blend the mixture again and then by hand add the cornstarch (which will help create a less runny filling).
  3. Grate one piece of the dough to make the base for the pie – you can grate directly onto the bottom of a lined rectangular baking tin. The larger tin you use the thinner the dough and filling levels will be. Spread the filling all over the bottom layer and grate the second ball on top of the filling, covering it as much as you can (avoid too much action so that you do not destroy the authentic ‘grated’ look!). If the dough gets too soft making grating quite a hard job, put the ball into the freezer back for some time and then continue the process.
  4. Bake at 180’C for about 30 minutes.
  5. Let the pie cool a bit and then cut it into slices.

August Improvisations

Remarks: Although the berries I had were already quite tangy (to say the least), I think the combination with sugar was a good one. Just add enough sugar to cover the sourness of both. And you can use any kind of berries you have, I think. The filling will be oozing from the sides of the pie but that’ll only create this sugary extra something to the border slices🙂

Result: Lemon-gooseberry bars, isn’t it a perfect end-of-summer vitamin booster?

August Improvisations

Check out these Double-Decker Gooseberry Scones too!

This post goes to the Sweet and Berry recipe collections.

G.

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 5: Russian Trains and Bored in Omsk

Omsk

Our second city in Siberia was Omsk. The night between our previous stop in Tyumen and Omsk was so short compared to the rest of the trains that we were ok to occupy the upper berth🙂 And our stay in Omsk was also pretty short as our next train was at 3 pm local time. Even just from the scarce amount of photographs we took in this city you can say that it was not that very exciting there. Who knows, it might have been due to being tired after spending already 2 nights on the train without a proper home and bed… But then we went to a Russian banya first thing in the morning when we arrived and that was supposed to bring us back to life in theory. It did grant us the feeling of being human again for sure🙂, however the city itself did not have the capacity to motivate us for a more extensive and a deeper visit.

Tyumen – Omsk

distance: plus 572 km

total distance from St Petersburg covered so far: 3932 km

local time: Moscow time + 3 hours

train: train Moscow – Neryungri (never ever before have I heard this geographical name!); takes you to Omsk from Tyumen in just 6 hours 34 minutes

Omsk

Since Omsk was not a very entertaining a city, I think I’m going to stop for a while and explain to you what a Russian train is. The trains that took us from St Petersburg to Moscow and then to Samara were rather posh compared to the rest of the trains circulating on the vast territory of Russia. But from that very first ‘real’ train that took us from Samara to Zlatoust on, we were using the hard-core coaches called platzkart, the cheapest option to discover Russia.

Travelling on a Russian train means sharing – be it space (especially in platzkart with at least 5 other people in your open compartment, but also in the closed compartment, called kupe, with 3 other people), toilets (which can get quite nasty by the end of the day, it’s true), food (there’s always that babushka treating you to her cookies) or stories. It’s also true that some people just hate these coaches with shared compartments where you bang your head on people’s legs (in or without socks) protruding from the upper berths, sleep in ear plugs and try not to touch anything. Sometimes all this can get a little bit too much, but now that I’ve spent quite a lot of time on Russian trains I can tell you that this is a real experience on its own which you shouldn’t miss if you want to understand the life of and in the society in Russia. And as for me, I prefer trains to, say, airplanes, cause they are much more human-scale and you don’t miss out on the distance you cover, particularly with the slower ‘babushka’ trains which make stops in those God forgotten places. And I do prefer platzkart because they are much less claustrophobic than kupe, where you can get ‘trapped’ with a smelly neighbour… And one more thing – the farther you get from Moscow (but even if your train is bound Moscow too) you seem to start forgetting what air conditioning means. After all, it’s such a recent invention, isn’t it?🙂 However out of all the trains that we’ve had there was only one which had neither AC nor a window to open, so we were virtually boiling in there. The rest of the trains had a fortochka (the upper part of the window that you can open) so it was quite bearable.

Tuymen

Each open compartment in a platzkart coach has 6 berths, 4 of which are considered more comfortable and thus preferable and two lateral berths are somewhat less so (pictured above). The least comfortable spots are those immediately after the toilets on both sides of the coach (there will be enough of opening and closing of the door to drive you mad, not mentioning all the other things). As I bought the tickets well in advance, I could secure the lower berths for us the ‘owners’ of which are usually automatically the ‘owners’ of the table. If you are travelling for quite a long distance you can get a set of sheets and a towel, and there’s always boiling water for free which you can use for tea or your kasha. The trains that travel all through Russia can get pretty ‘busy’ as people use them to get from one station to another which means your neighbour might hop off somewhere in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night and you will wake up with another neighbour. But there are those who travel from the A to Z destination of the train and you can easily spot them, they create almost their home out of the platzkart🙂

There are trains that make 30 minutes stops in improbable places in the heat of the night while allow just 2-3 minutes for those station where people do actually get on and off. But there are now also trains that make almost no stops in between large cities. But anyway they usually take days to get from one city to another so get prepared! By the way, we paid 16,300 RUB for the trip from St Petersburg to Ulan-Ude but if we didn’t make all those stops, it would have been just about 6,000 RUB with one change in Moscow. And a direct train Moscow-Vladivostok called Rossiya will cost you about 10,000 RUB in platzkart and take 144 hours off of your life one way!

Krasnoyarsk

{early morning, somewhere between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk…}

Russian train tips:

tip #1 which not all Russians are aware of, all trains in Russia except for the local short-distance trains called elektrichka (elektropoezd) run according to the Moscow time. Yep, even those in Vladivostok will depart and arrive on Moscow time. The stations will indicate Moscow time even on their facade clocks. And the tickets will show Moscow time, not the local time. So if you’re moving to the East keep in mind that the trains will depart and arrive a couple of hours later than what your ticket shows🙂

tip #2, when choosing the number of your place in platzkart avoid that which is either too close to 1 or to the last number in the coach (both will be close to the toilet), the same applies to the compartments, kupe.

tip #3, you need a passport when boarding the train. No other document / copy will do! If you ordered your tickets online and printed them out, come up with them and your passport to the train attendant standing outside your coach. If this is a passing train (e.g. doesn’t leave from your departure point) be aware of sometimes a very limited time of the stop!

tip #4, take flip-flops, earplugs, an eye mask (to block the lights from the stations), enough toilet paper (might unexpectedly finish) and wet wipes which you can also use for a quick refreshing ‘shower’ for your tired dusty legs and other parts, particularly when travelling in summer. Take a flask, some tea bags and at least a spoon – remember that boiling water is free on board of the Russian trains! And if you want it to be super authentic, borrow a traditional glass in a metal case from the train attendant, like this one:

Tuymen

tip #5, take a book about travels with you (I had mine about the Papazovs sailing the Atlantic ocean in a lifeboat), load your player up with music and think about other entertainment (see photo below) cause there will be no Internet in between large stations.

tip #6, there’s usually a very limited amount of plugs on the Russian trains and not all of them are 220 V. Take an external charger for you ever-dying smartphone or you will be forced to stand by the plug while your phone battery is charging!

tip #7, take only those food items which wouldn’t perish soon (or eat them immediately!). A good idea would be some instant porridge, instant mashed potatoes or instant noodles (see next tip), but also apples, rusks, buns and cookies.

tip #8, choose you travel time: summer is best in terms of weather (although trains might get super stuffy too) and in terms of neighbors. Summer is the time when mothers take their kids to babushka’s country houses, children go on school trips with their teachers, students travel back home, all in all a safer time I would say.

tip #9, take it easy, be polite and friendly, but do not forget about your personal belongings. I would keep my handbag close by when I sleep and if I’m travelling alone I take it with me to the toilet.

tip #10, when stopping in some city for just several hours, you can always leave your things at the station in the automatic lockers or with the lady who officially guards the things stocked in a large room usually somewhere on the -1 floor (while the technologies normally fail, the lady won’t; the service is 24 / 7 unless the station is super tiny). We did both and paid about 150-300 RUB for a day for 1-2 bags (if you need to take the bags out of the lockers in the middle of the day, you will have to pay again). So take a smaller backpack or a bag where you can fit all the things you would need for a day in the city. And don’t lose the token / receipt to recuperate the bags!

I could have added more tips but then it will take another post. So let’s return to Omsk and our first impressions after we get off the train, went to banya (we were the first customers!) and headed off towards the Irtysh river embankment (see first picture with crazy locals who walk on a slanting ground) via this picturesque district around the railway station…

Omsk

…close to which we had our oatmeal porridge with mors (berry juice) for breakfast in a cafe called Béchamel, surrounded by all sorts of open-air shops and counters. I could feel we were definitely moving eastwards… but also back in time, it felt like 90s!

Omsk

It is believed that Omsk (called so after the Om river) was founded just some 13 years later than St Petersburg, in 1716, in an attempt to defend the Russian borders from the southern steppes. It’s celebrating its birthday this year, so we witnessed some last-minute preparations so traditional for Russia: the continuation of the Lenina street on the other side of the Om river with the highest concentration of old merchant houses was all under construction, for example. We walked along that street up to the local theater and then turned back. The city looked pretty void, as if it was abandoned by its citizen gone somewhere else to celebrate its birthday🙂. By the way, Omsk seem to preserve all those Soviet names of its streets, among which you can find a street named after Broz Tito.

Omsk

Omsk highlights:

long walk along the Irtysh river embankment – together with the wind and the sporty Omsk people

a boat trip along the river – we skipped that but that is usually a nice thing to do in a city on a river

old houses, there’s even an entire street lined with them

Omsk History Museum – shame on us but we only bought some old-school postcards there but didn’t go inside

they also say that there are numerous parks in the city to which fact Omsk owed its unofficial Soviet name ‘Garden City‘ (it’s now rather called ‘City-Stump’ because of the massive cutting down of trees)

there’s also the museum of Dostoyevsky cause he was exiled to a prisoner camp in Omsk for 4 years

Omsk in a few words: Indeed in just few words, Omsk is a provincial city (however big it might be) and calls for quite a lazy stroll.

We walked a bit more in the city, bought some food for the lunch and dinner, then hopped on the bus to the railway station, took our things out from the lockers and headed for our train … which would take us to the next stop: Krasnoyarsk.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 4: Siberia Begins with Tyumen

Tuymen

On board of our crazy train from Makhachkala in the Caucasus to Siberia (its entire route is 3183 km and some 2 days 17 hours 5 minutes precisely) we reached one of Siberia’s most popular and Russia’s most energy-addicted city Tyumen early in the morning. Once the border with it crossed, we would experience Siberia for the rest of the trip.

Zlatoust – Tyumen

distance: plus 738 km

total distance from St Petersburg covered so far: 3360 km

local time: Moscow time + 2 hours

train: train Makhachkala – Tyumen (what a mixture of nations it was!); takes you to Tyumen from Zlatoust in 14 hours 59 minutes

Tuymen

They say that Tyumen is the first city in Siberia founded by the Russians in 1586. Its name is thought to derive from the Bashkir ’10 thousands’ meaning the 10,000-men army but there are also various other versions and legends that are equally probable. The city grew fast and became Siberia’s important trading point with prospering crafts such as the production of leather and carpets, but with the discovery of  oil and gas in the 1960s Tyumen launched a successful career. Its unofficial title now is the gas & oil capital of Russia. You could feel that in the style of some new buildings and the brands you could find along the central streets. But against the modern buildings as a background we mostly noticed small wooden houses of all sorts, e.g. glamour ones:

Tuymen

or with wooden ‘lace’:

Tuymen

or heavy window frames:

Tuymen

or showcasing the authentic logs:

Tuymen

as well as low-rising stone houses which belonged to the city merchants:

Tuymen

… all surrounded by streets lined with faceless Soviet blocks of flats. The city benefits from the presence of the river called Tura – its embankment is the place for walks and wedding celebrations (we saw quite a lot of them on our way as it’s the summer season!) and you can also take a boat trip which we did. It was windy and not that super warm, mostly cloudy. And there was no excursion as there was I should admit nothing much to see🙂 So we had to listen to the ever-present Russian pop music and the stories of our neighbors.

Tuymen

We walked across the bridge to the other side of the river where we found a church (on the very first picture of this post) and this patriotic information board with very transparent information:

Tuymen

We also tried to get inside another monastery but got silently and somewhat menacingly ushered out as there was some church service going on and we were not appropriately dressed (all the women were in long skirts). That reminds me that it was a Saturday and we could notice that the people were dressed up for the weekend in the city. There was also some kind of a concert on the central square which we half-listened to but mostly ignored while enjoying the evening sun and a rye kovrizhka. As for the food part of it, we had our blini for breakfast at a local fast-food cafe (we were trying to avoid going to other – international – fast food chains) and visited the central market where we got our kefir fix (I think I almost made my friend addicted!). Then we lunch at a pelmennaya where my friend sampled the famous Siberian pelmeni (Russian ravioli) and I had my weird conversation with the cafe ladies who would not understand why I did not want any meat in my buckwheat🙂. The ladies were agitated a bit too much without this already – but then we realized that was just their style, shouting at one another. We also tried juice from sea buckthorn. All in all I would say that getting from the Urals into Siberia made us pay more for the food, there was a minor rise in the prices compared to Zlatoust but it was noticeable.

Tuymen

We even went inside two museums belonging to the Usadba Kolokolnikova museum which issued us numerous tickets to seemingly numerous exhibitions. In the end we discovered that both of these museums were limited to two merchants’ houses and their exhibits fitted in just a couple of rooms. Above is one of the museums recreating the store of the tea and coffee merchant (it had a charming old lady, a real babushka who should be ideally working in a kindergarten, who would call us tender names and let us leave our things in a room while we were in the museum). By the way, Tyumen was probably the only city on our way where we didn’t ind any decent postcards and the post office was already closed, so we left without sending anything from the first city in Siberia we visited.

Tyumen’s highlights:

golden (!) monument to cats which emigrated to Leningrad in 1944 to help eradicate rats there after the Siege ended

the embankment of the Tura river open to all winds, people watching included

a walk in the city center to admire the wooden architecture and trace the city’s merchant past

Torgovy Dom Kolokolnikova museum in the art-nouveau-looking merchant’s house (to the left of the less interesting light green house where the Red Army commander Blyukher had his HQ)

they say that the city’s parks and the botanical garden are worth visiting too

Tyumen in a few words: old Siberian city with enough to entertain you if you have just a couple of hours

Well, you see, Tyumen didn’t impress us much as we were expecting a bit more… moreover, originally I wanted to go to Tobolsk, an old city which ceded its place in Siberia to the growing and more lucky Tyumen – and which also preserved most of its heritage. It’s a pity to admit but in Tyumen we were mostly trying if not to kill time but to find something to do before our overnight train…

… which would take us to the next stop: Omsk.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

Moelleux aux Groseilles for My Mother

Moelleux aux Groseilles (Redcurrant Cake)

In between the series of the Trans-Siberian journey posts, here’s a simple and yet very delicate red currant cake that I’ve made for my Mother’s birthday. With all the berries we are having now at our dacha, this was just ‘what the doctor prescribed’. Enjoying the sourness of our northern berries with the sweetness of the summer days.

Moelleux aux Groseilles (Redcurrant Cake)

1 year ago – Petrogradsky and Aptekarsky Islands in Details – no recipe in this post

2 years ago – Chasing Alexander Pushkin in Tsarskoye Selo – no recipe in this post

3 years ago – Zucchini and Aubergine Whole Wheat Pizza

4 years ago – Moscow and Courgette Pies

Moelleux aux Groseilles or Redcurrant Cake adapted from the lovely lavenderandlovage.com will make a French-style dacha-inspired upside-down cake with that sweet & sour combination in one bite. For the entire recipe, follow the link above. Here are my changes and remarks:

As far as the ingredients go, I used 2 small eggs instead of one large egg and also regular (though quite fine-grain) sugar instead of caster sugar. I substituted all-purpose flour + baking soda for the self-rising flour as well. I also thought that adding at least some vanilla extract would help veil the egg flavour, so I added some to the batter.

Moelleux aux Groseilles (Redcurrant Cake)

As for the procedure, I suppose 200 ‘C was a little it too much. I and could see through the oven window that the top was browning too fast, so I decreased the temperature to about 180 ‘C for the last 10 minutes or so (the total time being 30 minutes). I used a bundt tin and didn’t line it with paper, just greased it generously.

Moelleux aux Groseilles (Redcurrant Cake)

Remarks: The northern berries are normally quite watery and sour (or with the best-case scenario – just not sweet enough) so the top of my cake was a little bit too moist in some parts. Although the soft and yet ship-shape cake counterbalanced this moisture (and I turned it out of the form almost in its entirety), I wouldn’t add any more berries for fear of creating too much liquid on top.

Moelleux aux Groseilles (Redcurrant Cake)

Result: This French-style upside-down cake is easy to make but interesting enough thanks to this combination of the tangy berry topping and the airy ‘base’ part (after all, it’s a moelleux which means soft & delicate in French). My Mother particularly praised it for this sweet & sour combination.

Moelleux aux Groseilles (Redcurrant Cake)

… And if you find the tangy berries a bit too much, you can always add a bit more icing sugar on top (anyway, it will disappear entirely after some time, being absorbed by the berries)! Or even eat it with some whipped cream as the author suggests. If you are interested in other ways to use red currants in baking, try this red currant meringue cake, red currant coffeecake, red currant flan or any of these options.

Mama's birthday

Just some photos to save the moment. Dried mulberries (from a local tea & natural stuff shop) in a clay cup (from my Trans-Siberian trip), such a treat for sweet-toothed!

Mama's birthday

And some freshly baked sourdough rye bread.

Mama's birthday

Will come back soon with the continuation of my travel posts, I’ve got aaaall the Siberia to tell you about.

This post goes to Berries, Sweet and Country-specific recipe collections.

G.

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