architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Back to 19th Century in Vitebsk, Chagall’s Birthplace

Vitebsk

I arrived in Vitebsk from Polotsk on board of a ‘business-class’ high-speed train in just 1.5 hours. Together with 3 babushkas who quite confidently enjoyed their ride. Vitebsk is Belarus’ second oldest city, founded by Princess of Kiev in 974 as the legend goes. Vitebsk is now more known as a birthplace of Marc Chagall whose figure haunts the city.

Vitebsk

Marc Chagall’s house is very close to the railway station so I headed there straight away. It was Monday and the museum was closed, so I just wandered a bit in the neighbourhood. It was all about small buildings, industrial sites and very few people.

Vitebsk

Not only the street with Chagall’s home is decorated with murals and his quotes – I spotted many of them all over the city. I’m not a fan and I really know little about him and his art but I think it somehow fits this city to have an artist who had such a connection to it. Chagall would go on painting his native Vitebsk up until his death.

Vitebsk

This quote about ‘homeland in his soul’ is right next to his house, and here it is:

Vitebsk

Same street:

Vitebsk

A nearby street:

Vitebsk

There were quite a few red brick houses in that district, only one of them completely ruined and graffiti-ed – but the rest faithfully serving their inhabitants.

Vitebsk

A local Beatles club where they throw dance parties and watch old movies. Was thinking of going there at first but that night they were having a party for ‘those above…’ which usually means a certain age which I don’t belong to yet.

Vitebsk

Can you spot a lamp in the left-hand window?

Vitebsk

Crossing the Western Dvina river towards the city center:

Vitebsk

In Vitebsk I could feel the winter is coming. After such a springtime day in Polotsk this came as an unpleasant surprise particularly because I was expecting a much finer day judging by the forecast. But the mist was so heavy in the first part of the day that when the sun finally did come out for a brief moment, I had to hurry up to retake most of the photos before it disappeared again.

Vitebsk

From the hill with the Assumption Cathedral one can enjoy the view over the city. The city which in its historical center one feels as if being suddenly transported to the Alexander Pushkin times, to the early 19th century!

Vitebsk

And those 1-2 storey buildings seem to be preserved in a pretty authentic state, not like in St Petersburg where quite a few of these were either upgraded with an extra floor or two, or ‘sank’ into the ground up to the balcony because the ‘cultural level’ grew fast.

Vitebsk

Judging by the plate, this house is here since late 18th century:

Vitebsk

I had my breakfast in the mid of the misty Vitebsk, accompanied by the pigeons:

Vitebsk

Can’t make out if this pigeon here is real or painted? 🙂

Vitebsk

I didn’t expect any museum to be open but turns out the other ‘museum’ of Chagall (or rather gallery – they call themselves Chagall’s Art Center) was working that Monday. They only had one floor of his drawings while at the second floor there were curious posters by Polish artist Ryszard Kaja.

Vitebsk

Then I came up to the Victory Square with this impressive 1970s monument.

Vitebsk

Just a few meters away is a street named after Chagall, with yet another of his quotes:

Vitebsk

And in the inner yard there’s this mural with the iconic ‘eternal student’ of the Soviet cinema – Alexander Demyanenko.

Vitebsk

Ah yes, I forgot to mention that I couldn’t resist the temptation to enter into a real relic from the past that you can hardly find in Russia now – Univermag (“universal store”), the central department store of Vitebsk with – literally – rows of clocks, kitchen utensils and crystalware, and flocks of very serious-looking customers. I was enjoying it immensely but just couldn’t take photos as nobody else would understand – they were enjoying it in a slightly different way 🙂

Vitebsk

Later, in my attempt to find nice postcards, sweet buns (for some reason I was sure I would find them) and some gostintsy (souvenirs) I also wandered way into the faceless districts with all kinds of Soviet houses from various epochs.Ah yes, I also saw this picturesque heap right in front of the local police station in the center:

Vitebsk

And then suddenly there was sun! So I hurried back.

Vitebsk

Oh those balconies!

Vitebsk

The center of Vitebsk is lovely although really small.

Vitebsk

As in many small European cities, if you have ‘too much’ time you end up making circles round the same place:

Vitebsk

Above – ex-town hall, now a local history museum which was unfortunately closed. Below – yet another baroque cathedral, looking pretty much like the St Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk – though less elegant.

Vitebsk
All of a sudden there was this nice evening:

Vitebsk

It’s a pity the sun was about to set.

Vitebsk

The pail and the kettle are there for a reason – they attract people to a local art gallery.

Vitebsk

A glance back at the Assumption Cathedral and the Vitba river which gave its name to the city.

Vitebsk

Trying to get rid of the remaining Belorussian rubles, I visited quite a few of shops in the railway station district. As a result, I brought back gostintsy – some of the goods that Belarus is famous for (at least, in Russia): potato chips (made with salt and sunflower oil, no preservatives), cheese, sausages, sweets and beauty products. Belarus is also providing us with textile, bed linen and… tractors :). By the way I did find some postcards in the end, three of them were particularly interesting, depicting the best known trademarks of Belarus – tractor, condensed milk and a huge truck.

Gostintsy

Belarus products for us I suppose mean something like ‘traditional quality for less money’. And theirs is quite an established brand in Russia, we have many outlets selling their dairy and meat products all over the country. Pictured above – bitter chocolate (which was a little bit too much with 90% cocoa) and that panforte or gingerbread they seem to be particularly fond of and that I sampled already in Smolensk. Pictured below: potato chips and condensed milk in a traditional blue can.

Gostintsy

It’s not my first time in Belarus, as my father’s mother was born and lived there. I was in Minsk, Baranovichi and Orsha. But this time the journey was a solitary one and I had more time (and more occasions) to think of this country from a traveller’s point of view. So, my overall impression of Belarus and its people:

From what I’ve seen, Belorussians are open and uncomplicated. Family is very important to them, relatives seem to be closer to each other – at least in terms of sharing thoughts, problems, i.e. living a more communal life. As a whole, it looks as if the nation has been (or is being?) calmed down and reassured by the state and habituated to a good steady moderately-consumerist life. Although they are not wealthy, they are not demanding either. Yes, I saw quite a few drunk people, some of them were openly drinking vodka in the morning enjoying the view over the river right in the center of the city. It is obvious that the level of income is pretty low but these guys are not used to luxury – and their notion of it might be quite ridiculous from a European point of view. By the way, November 7th, commemorating the October revolution, is still a national holiday in Belarus while in Russia it has been replaced with the amorphous ‘Unity Day’ on November 4th.

I came back home in a formerly trendy but now rather run down Zvyazda (or Zvezda, Star) Minsk – St Petersburg train, through the Art Nouveau gates of my city – Vitebsky Railway Station. Now its name makes more geographical sense to me than it did before!

This post goes to the Belarus section of my Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Relaxed in Polotsk, the Oldest City of Belarus

Polotsk

After a somewhat grayish walk in Smolensk, a sudden journey into spring in Polotsk, Belarus, was like transporting myself to a whole new world. I arrived in Polotsk very early taking a night train called Dvina that looked very old-fashioned with its branded blue curtains and thick linen. The hostel where I stayed was one of the best in terms of quality and price, very close to the railway station and at the same time in a walking distance from the center. Well, Polotsk is no metropolis but it’s Belarus’ oldest city.

Polotsk

My first photos in Polotsk were that of a red-brick house which might have been painted over once. I found it in a backyard of a street full of low-rise buildings on my way to the center. While descending to the Western Dvina river, a heard a church service (it was Sunday) in this early 20th century church. There was such a crowd of people there I couldn’t get in and so took a photo of the sky instead:

Polotsk

Then, following the Francysk Skaryna avenue (the nation’s first printer who printed the Bible in Old Belorussian in early 16th century) I came across this Soviet era relic, indicating that this very residential house is officially a House of Exemplary Sanitary Order and High Household Culture (rough translation).  See, they didn’t paint it over, so I guess it is still true!

Polotsk

And then I left the avenue and started walking along the river. It was such a fine morning, looking more like spring than anything else! I saw a lady carrying twigs probably for some handicraft and a couple of dog people.

Polotsk

Warm sun:

Polotsk

An angler:

Polotsk

Village:

Polotsk

I could hear cock crowing somewhere on the other side of Dvina. And there was this cat enjoying the sun together with me.

Polotsk

Moving closer to the center:

Polotsk

Polotsk is celebrating its 1155 years this year. Wow. And it’s not that it was founded in 862, it’s just that it was mentioned in the chronicles under this year. Some archaeological findings say it was there already in the 8th century.

Polotsk

Now Polotsk is a mixture of a village and a low-rise town, with specimens of many eras, which I really liked. Don’t expect much from it though, it’s small though sprawling quite extensively (no wonder here as most of its buildings are one or two-story).

Polotsk

A huge abandoned ‘palace’:

Polotsk

I was a bit mislead by the name of the street running behind this building, called Castle Street. The only thing left from the Castle times is this mound that they used to built a stadium in the 60s.

Polotsk
The Polotsk University is also an example of recycling – it now occupies an ex Jesuit College.

Polotsk

And here’s one of the most beautiful sights of Polotsk – the hill with the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

The cathedral was first built in the 11th century, then demolished and rebuilt in baroque style in the 18th century. It’s elegant, carefully measured in every detail and architecturally interesting from any angle, it seems.

Polotsk

It also reflects the sun and serves as a sort of a lighthouse or a mirror with its facade turned to the river.

Polotsk

Of course the original 11th century cathedral looked nowhere close to this one, instead it resembled the St Sophia Cathedrals of Kiev and Novgorod the Great – round and Byzantine-like. The stones that remain from the early church are now on display at the base of the walls:

Polotsk
A very touristy point:

Polotsk

And here’s a part I liked a lot – a bridge hanging over the Polota river – which actually gave the city its name.

Polotsk

Here’s what you find across the river:

Polotsk
A true village:

Polotsk

With the signs of civilization:

Polotsk
Looking from the hill over the city lying below:

Polotsk

As I realized I had seen almost everything in the city center by that moment, I decided to walk to the convent founded by Euphrosyne of Polotsk, one of the most loved saints of Belarus and one of  the country’s patron saints too. She was a daughter of a noble family but ran away from it all and became a nun, copying books and helping the poor.

Polotsk

The convent is located outside of the city but you can reach it on foot taking a rather dusty road.

Polotsk

The monastery was full of people and the smell of freshly baked buns was coming from a local bakery.

Polotsk

This small church above is actually the one that is still preserved from the Euphrosyne times, i.e. the 12th century. It was later restyled (which is a bit misleading) but the frescoes ones sees inside give away the long history of the place. Here is the church’s shadow on the late 19th century neo-Byzantine cathedral.

Polotsk

Outside of the monastery, one of the most photographed spots 🙂

Polotsk
Yes, this is Polotsk too, where else would you find Vegas and Pharaoh in one place:

Polotsk

Coming back to the hostel, I passed by the 1952 railway station:

Polotsk

And then peeped in the local market which is a stone’s throw away from my hostel:

Polotsk

An array of handmade stockings:

Polotsk

A boy’s corner:

Polotsk

And an apple corner:

Polotsk

After a short rest for lunch at the hostel I continued my walk in the city.

Polotsk

The central hotel called Dvina in the pompous Stalinist style:

Polotsk

Did you know that the geographical center of Europe is in Polotsk? It’s of course contested by other places but why not Polotsk.

Polotsk

(Spot the traditional kerchiefs in the background)

Polotsk

Midpoint of Europe or nit, Polotsk is wonderfully provincial and decadent.

Polotsk

Zoom in: they put new plastic windows in this tattered house:

Polotsk

A mural on the same street telling the story of Polotsk, located on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks.

Polotsk

My next stop (I was already making yet another circle around the city) was at the local history museum. And a very dusty local history museum it is, housed in a recycled late 19th century Lutheran church. By the way, one of city’s museums (that of natural history) is located in a former water tower.

Polotsk

Miraculously I was not the only visitor of this museum that day. There was one exhibition I particularly liked – although it seems it was even dustier than the rest – representing a traditional wooden house interior. I also paid to see a room they opened for me dedicated to the 100 years of the revolution only to find some (dusty) Soviet exhibits once removed from the museum’s permanent exhibition and now nonchalantly restored.

Polotsk

And yes, although they speak Russian there – never heard anyone speaking Belorussian throughout my journey – it turns out they use their official language in social ads, on state billboards and… on tags in museums 🙂 No English either. Had to ‘secretly’ overhear the excursion (obviously in Russian) and did my best to understand the Belorussian. Having inhaled quite a mass of dust, I continued my walk towards the cathedral when I realized they were having an organ concert that day. Too late, all the tickets were sold and so I just relaxed in the rays of the setting sun.

Polotsk

Such a fine day!

Polotsk

Western Dvina:

Polotsk

Creamy facade of the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

So, Polotsk did pass my test: it’s small, there are old buildings all over it, a river (even two) and hilly places, a local history museum, a market, postcards (which I failed to buy as I didn’t have Belorussian rubles yet – and by the way after the denomination they do look very much like euro, both coins and notes, see here), there’s a nice hostel to stay overnight and also a natural reserve nearby which I wish I could visit. Like Smolensk, Polotsk had its fine moments, used to belong to various nations, was occupied during the Second World War and is now a tourist attraction. But unlike Smolensk it has a much more humane face, so to speak (at least they don’t fine you for crossing the street in the wrong place). Or was it – again – just the weather? 🙂

This post goes to my Travel series.

G.

architecture · on USSR / Russia · travel

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 10 and Last: 7 Time Zones Back and Roundup

Flight and Moscow

Flying 7 time zones back or 8 hours 30 minutes all across Russia has been the longest flight I’ve ever taken. I flew back to Moscow and Moscow time. One of the thoughts I’ve noted during my stay in Vladivostok was this: “I realized I like railway stations. They always show Moscow time there :D”. And although I didn’t make it all the way to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian, I took a train from Vladivostok to its airport, thus symbolically making my way back to where we started from the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Flight and Moscow

My flight was early in the morning and yet I arrived in Moscow at 10.45 am of the same day! My 8 and a half hours of flight were eaten up by flying 7 time zones back. So I had my breakfast-lunch and dinner and arrived just on time for a second breakfast in Moscow 🙂 By the way, I ordered vegetarian option and by that they meant black bread instead of white bread, no butter, meat and… no bulochka either, what a shame! But it was ok, especially when you realize you’ve been only eating, listening to music (there was a certain David Gilmour playing in my earphones) and watching movies (three!) for 8 h 30 min. It’s a pity the photos I took were mostly of the clouds as we were flying way too high to make even those Novosibirsk-Moscow flight photos.

Flight and Moscow

In Moscow later that same very long (rubber-like) day I decided to go to the city center and visit the place where Mikhail Bulgakov lived. In the state that I was in (not really making head or tail of anything) I was lured into another museum in the same courtyard where Bulgakov actually never ever lived cause that was where the house managers would work.

Flight and Moscow
After realizing I listened to an excursion in the wrong Bulgakov’s museum 🙂 I went for a walk and first visited the nearby Patriarshiye Prudy (Patriarch Ponds) where the first episodes of the Master and Margarita novel take place.

Flight and Moscow

Walking along Spiridonovka Street I came across these gates which look like some Lord of the Rings paraphernalia. And yet they would conduct some international negotiations here in this building as it belongs to the Foreign Affairs ministry since 1929:

Flight and Moscow

Further ahead – some cozy 16th century corners of Moscow:

Flight and Moscow

They were not really very strict with their lines back then, were they:

Flight and Moscow

I walked up to the Kuznetsky Most (Smith’s Bridge which is not there anymore but the name remains) and then we finished off my long rubber day with some delicious Greek food. The last train of my trip took me overnight to St Petersburg with a coach full of kids going to see the Northern capital and the summer storm behind the windows. And again it felt so weird to be travelling alone on the train!

I want to say a sincere thank you to my courageous companion. It was your first time in Russia, first time on a Russian train and yet I admire you (and I’ve told you that several times :). Katerinaki dear, you’ve made this trip, seriously! I couldn’t have possibly done the same on my own and I’m glad I could make those 6865 km with you by my side. You added to the trip that wonderful touch that only a friend can have. Thank you for sharing it all with me!

***

With this post I would like to end my Trans-Siberian Trip series. Ten posts for ten stages and thousands of kilometers. A round trip across the most interesting place on Earth – my own country.

Trans-Siberian Railroad Trip Roundup

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 1: Moscow Old and New

walking round Moscow before setting off to Siberia

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 2: Samara on Volga River

moving South and East to the wide and long Volga

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 3: Zlatoust, Taganay Park and the Urals

beautiful nature of the Ural mountains

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 4: Siberia Begins with Tyumen

first stop in Siberia in the oil & gas capital of Russia

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

How To: Russian Trains

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 6: Krasnoyarsk and Stolby Park

going deeper into Siberia

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 7: Majestic Baikal and Irkutsk

the day we saw the beauty

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

and the biggest Lenin’s head in the world

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 9: Vladivostok and Russky Island

with that very different nature

This trip has been a very enriching experience. Indeed something that I will remember. I will definitely recall the nature part of the journey most of all. Taganay and Stolby, the two nature reserves (parks) that we visited gave us a much deeper insight of the Urals and Siberia than any large city could have done. And Baikal is unforgettable. Nature will never disappoint you regardless of the weather conditions. We enjoyed it with all the rain and mosquitoes and would do the same were we travelling in winter or autumn. I would even add much more nature to such trips. Nature and people.

Visiting smaller cities was quite a smart thing to do too, although there is always this chance of getting bored. When I was planning the trip several months in advance, trying to make the hours we would spend on the train not that long and tiresome, I guess I had a very vague idea of what the trip would actually feel like. I was avoiding the cities I’d already seen and that was the main principle. But I was also trying to opt for those places which would reveal their history and give us the sense of getting a bit closer to the life of the region (ideally). Now that I look back to my selection I think that even with those cities that we didn’t enjoy immensely (like Omsk or Tyumen) we actually learned something that enhanced our overall experience. After all, each city or place we visited added up to the incredible puzzle that our trip turned out to be.

And you know what? Wherever we went there were three things that we noticed in common: the traditional Russian beverage kvas sold in the streets (it was summer after all), birch trees (apart from the Russky Island perhaps) and… Lenin Streets! 🙂

Some more Russian train trip tips came to my mind recently:

  • the less things you take with you – the better. Ideally – a medium-size backpack with a small bag to fit your wallet, phone, camera and passport.
  • don’t drink water from the tap (particularly on the trains) and you’ll be fine.
  • should you have any concerns when travelling on a train, go to your coach’s supervisor (provodnik in Russian), they should be able to help you
  • take notes, seriously. After the first city you won’t be able to recall any details, I assure you! An even better idea would be to take notes of the pictures you make!
  • look out for the locally produced stuff (food, clothes, etc). These are not only the best souvenirs to remind you about the trip but also sometimes things that are (unjustly) forgotten and unheard of where you come from.

And here is the (entire) Trans-Siberian railway map from Wikipedia which shows you not only the extent of the way in km but also in hours. We only made it to the +5 h blue zone round Baikal on the train which leaves us 4 more time zones yet to explore 🙂

Trans-Siberian railway map from Wikipedia

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 9: Vladivostok and Russky Island

Vladivostok - 1

Hello Vladivostok! My friend met me with a flower, such a treat! After a flight which felt like being on a bus as it made several stops on its way from Irkutsk to Vladivostok, Ulan-Ude being its first one. We flew over China twice: before its second stop in Blagoveshchensk and after. It felt so weird to be travelling alone and not to have any more trains to take. Travelling by plane and covering over a thousand kilometers in a couple of hours seemed almost unnatural!

Vladivostok - 1

Walking along the embankment or should I say the shore of the Japanese Sea later that day and listening to a street musician playing a bagpipe I was wondering whether I was in China after all? Or in Thailand? Never seen either of them but it felt like I was truly in Asia.

Vladivostok - 1

My eager eye spotted the decadence and rejoiced at seeing these authentic courtyards which used to be quite a dangerous area and now is mostly occupied by various hippy-artsy places:

Vladivostok - 1

Since its foundation as a outpost in 1860 Vladivostok (‘own the East’ in Russian) has been a melting pot of nations and interests. This district in particular – still called Millionka (either from the ironical ‘Millionaires’ or Million People) – was the local China town with gangsters and smugglers and spies and whatnot. It became a real city within a city but then the Soviets came and cleared the place out in the 1930s.

Vladivostok - 1

Evening view over the city from one of its numerous sopka (volcano, hills). The new districts seem to climb to the top of the hills, the view from there should be amazing, I suppose. Next morning we set off on our way to the Russky Island – across the Zolotoy Bridge – and thus spotted more breathtaking views over the Golden Horn Bay (Zolotoy Rog):

Russky

Then we crossed another impressive bridge called Russky bridge and got to the Russky Island which is located … “9,334 kilometres east of Moscow” according to Wikipedia. That was amazing. I thank my friends who took me there regardless of the distance. I guess those Far Eastern girls just don’t mind those kilometers of walking at all.

Russky

Apart from being quite a challenge in trying to reach one of its capes, Tobizin Cape, through mud and over the cliffs, this island offered to me an insight into the unbelievably different nature of the Far East. It IS different there on the island, no birch trees by the way, which seemed to accompany us all throughout the trip.

Russky

My mind was trying to find a reference, something to compare the sight in front of me with. But it failed! The closest at times was the Mediterranean but the rest, especially with those long capes and gulfs and volcanic rocks and the horizon. I was swept off my feet! The eye would just fail to encompass it all.

Russky
Nature is generous on dimensions there. The Japanese Sea and the Ocean:

Russky

and then… there was all of a sudden this mist, at first just drawing a curtain over the sun:

Russky

People were seemingly unabashed by that change in the weather. They kept jumping off the cliff (I preferred not to look at them but still I could hear them) and swimming. It’s a pity I didn’t as I thought we would find a less rocky beach since there were quite a few of them around… Meanwhile the mist was stubbornly making its way to the city, enveloping everything in its white blanket:

Russky

It wasn’t cold at first so we just walked back to catch the bus (which we missed), stopping here and there to admire the Nature:

Russky

White poppies and thyme of the Far East:

Russky

And that was when people started gradually getting out of the island which inevitably created traffic jams on the only road leading to the only bridge connecting the island with the mainland Vladivostok. We hitchhiked a part of our way on some weird mini-bus full of quasi-military guys (we thought they were either soldiers or some military-style game addicts?) who ate the rest of the very tasty home-made cake 🙂 We thus got to the vast-vast campus of the DVFU or FEFU (Far Eastern Federal University) which looks more like a city and contributes to the population growth on the island:

Russky

They built all the monster buildings there on the ex-military school territory for the 2012 APEC Summit (as well as those two impressive bridges) and later they got revamped into the campus for the recently united three local universities. It’s enormous, there’s a bus circulating on its territory which we took for a quick excursion… and in that mist which was chasing us out of the island the campus in the middle of nowhere looked even less credible. One of the university alumni is Russian singer Ilya Lagutenko and he was scheduled to perform later that day in a concert on the main square. We got there on time but the mist was so thick and cold and damp by then that we failed to wait any longer and went home to warm up our bones. And sample some cooked bracken!

Vladivostok - 2

Next day I went around Vladivostok on my own. I started my journey from walking to the Tokarevskaya Koshka lighthouse, one of the oldest in the country. It’s located on this narrow man-made patch (called koshka) which is washed by the waves from both sides and which disappears with the tide. It felt very… special being there all alone in the early morning, breathing in the ocean and observing the boats passing by. They say that this is the spot to meet the beginning of the day – it seems like the day on this planet starts somewhere over there!

Vladivostok - 2

Then I got on the bus (and here I should say that Vladivostok buses are the most outrageously kitsch-decorated buses I’ve ever seen – inside, not outside) and first visited the Vladivostok railway station. I already felt nostalgia when I looked at all the trains and people going places. The building is in neo-Russian style and has these beautiful ceramic tiles:

Vladivostok - 2

Walking in the city I – as always – mostly paid attention to the remnants of the bygone era. Loved this tiny Pharmacy on the corner:

Vladivostok - 2
This is Vladivostok:

Vladivostok - 2

Quite a mixture, isn’t it? The city is also quite rich in various types of street art, particularly paintings on the walls. Well, birds are abundantly present too 🙂

Vladivostok - 2
The only museum I visited in the city was the Arsenyev Museum called after Vladimir Arsenyev who spent his life in relentless expeditions all across the Far East and wrote books about the region.

Vladivostok - 2

I liked the museum (and the building!) – it was small enough not to get tired and some halls in particular impressed me with their curious ideas of how to display the exhibits. For instance, they had a huge shelve stand with a specific object representing this or that merchant / trade in the city’s history. And this is what you do when you have far too many books:

Vladivostok - 2

They do not need any extra filters there with this mirror:

Vladivostok - 2

I walked along the most central of the streets of Vladivostok, Svetlanskaya. As you can imagine, I was quite happy to see the street  lined with Art-Nouveau buildings as well as decadent Soviet creations. Loved this mirror and the staircase in the local GUM (central department store):

Vladivostok - 2
Walking away from the center and then turning right to the embankment, I saw this submarine turned into museum. Remembering that sheer fright I felt inside the submarine in Kaliningrad, I avoided going inside 🙂

Vladivostok - 2

Zolotoy (Golden) Bridge looking pretty… silver:

Vladivostok - 2

I entered the port area and thoroughly enjoyed those red-brick workshops with layers upon layers of time periods on them:

Vladivostok - 2

My friend suggested going up to see the Gothic-style Catholic church which I did – though I spent quite some time trying to get round all those courtyards and winding parking lots (roads?) leading towards the church. The church itself didn’t impress me as much as the view from up there, revealing even more layers of time:

Vladivostok - 2
Vertical layers too:

Vladivostok - 2

Later that day I thought how weird it was that people living in the easternmost part of my country would go to sleep at the same time as their friends at the other end of it would be at work. And then when you wake up – your friends are still awake on that other side… SEVEN hours, seven time zones!

Vladivostok - 3
My last day in Vladivostok was a lazy day with even more mist, stifling dampness and drizzling rain. First I went out of the city to visit the Botanical Gardens. There I walked in the woods and admired more of that nature (see red fish in the bottom left corner of the picture above?) so strikingly different and yet so near. Then I bought some LPs for my Mother at a store called Kontrabanda (Vladivostok was always famous for it being too close to the capitalist world where they have jeans, Beatles, short skirts and long hair) and as a parting gift enjoyed a tea ceremony at home 🙂 Early next morning it was time to say goodbye – both to the city and the journey.

Vladivostok highlights:

walking along the embankment and people / sunset / sunrise watching

Tokarevskaya Koshka lighthouse (preferable before the tide:)

Millionka district, the local (ex-)China town

Arsenyev Primorye Museum

send old-school postcards with Millionka to your friends on the other side of the world

MISTS (June-July is the season)

Russky Island and other wonderful natural places away from the city

the Ocean, the port and the bridges

Vladivostok in a few words: Hills, ocean and layers of time that are recent enough to be visible and yet old enough to spark an interest. In some ways Vladivostok is pretty close to St Petersburg actually! Equally an ‘artificial’ city built to both defend from and be a window to the world. But just on the other side of the country 🙂 And although the city failed to keep my enthusiasm going for 4 days, I would like to come back.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

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.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

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.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

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.