Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Got into Tallinn after midnight last night after a pretty rocky voyage. I had to move downstairs on the ferry because I started to feel queasy where I was. Luckily I found a reasonable hostel that had a vacancy and now I'm about to explore the city for a few days.

Heading for Tallinn

I'm on board a ferry in port in Helsinki. It's 9.22pm (on 28 September) and in eight minutes we'll be setting off for Tallinn, Estonia which will take about one and a half hours. Free wi-fi on the ferry!

We seem to be moving already and it's 9.25pm. Since when does any form of public transport leave early?

I enjoyed Helsinki. Most people spoke fluent English so it was the easiest place to communicate with people than I've found in a long time. It made a nice rest before heading to the Baltic nations where I'll probably be back to charades and occasional phrases from my guidebook. I'm a bit tired of sight-seeing so in Helsinki I mainly relaxed and read. I did see in the city square a UN-sponsored bit of artwork called 'Buddy Bears' consisting of statues of bears, one for each country, each painted to reflect the culture of its respective nation. Here is New Zealand's.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Progress so far

Here's an updated map that shows my path all the way from Lyttelton (NZ) to Helsinki with the huge area covered by the Trans-Mongolian. It's only a short way to my destination in England (note that's what the 'Finish' means, not Finnish).


Made it to Finland without any problems. Throughout the journey in Russia, I had registered my visa at any city in which I stayed for more than 72 hours - as required by authorities - and I even registered a few times in places where I was there for less than that. I had carefully collected all these registrations and my used train tickets to give to Russian immigration officials as I left the country. And what happens? They didn't even look at them. Just stamped my passport and that was it.

Helsinki seems nice.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Last Night in Russia

Tomorrow I leave Russia since it is the final day of my visa. I'm a bit sad because Kristen left St Petersburg late last night to catch her flight back to NZ which leaves from Moscow. I'm going to Helsinki which is only a six hour train trip away from St Petersburg so it didn't make sense for me to go back to Moscow. Going to Helskinki one of the easiest ways out of Russia since Ukraine and Belarus both involve visa hassles. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania don't and I thought of going to them but I will go to Finland first, then south through the Baltic states and into Poland. As well as being an interesting route, I will have no hassles with visas in any of those countries.


21 September
We spent two days exploring the massive Hermitage art gallery and even then, there were parts that I didn't see. It's too difficult to pick out the highlights because everywhere I looked there was something interesting. As well as the artworks, the rooms in the building were spectacular in themselves - it was the Winter Palace of the Russian royal family.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

St Petersburg

A relatively brief eight-hour trip on the train to the city formerly known as Leningrad. Here are some photos from the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood which is my favourite-named church so far. Its called that because it is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries in 1881, which is ironic because he was a highly progressive and reform-minded tsar and his son who became tsar upon his death, Alexander III, was very reactionary. All of the interiors of the church are mosaics.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sculpture Park

16 September
After the fall of communism, many towns and cities wanted to get rid of the statues from that period of Russia's history. A lot of them got gathered together into a park in Moscow. There we saw lots of Lenins and a few Stalins and Marxs and other soviet figures.

Marx and me

Quite a few people have had a go at this statue of Stalin, including breaking off his nose. In the background you can see another sculpture of many faces behind bars which I assume is in memory of Stalin's millions of victims.

Stalin, Kristen, and Lenin

Thursday, September 16, 2010


We went to Red Square and the Kremlin yesterday and saw Lenin's preserved body in his mausoleum (which Kristen doesn't think is really his body because it looks pretty waxy). The night before, I also went for the walk to Red Square and snapped this picture of St Basil's Cathedral.

On Arbat Street, which is dominated by tourist shops, I picked up these Russian dolls. From left to right: Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin.

Trans-Siberian Railway end

13 September
This afternoon we arrived at Moscow train station, completing our 30-day Trans-Siberian journey from Beijing. It was a great trip, despite lots of bad sleep and instant noodles. I especially liked how the scenery and culture changes from China to Mongolia to Russia.

The train that brought us into Moscow

Here's a map of the route we've covered (courtesy of Lonely Planet):

We're going to spend a few days here before going to St Petersburg. The weather in Russia has got really cold. I've gone from sweltering humidity in Asia to below 10 degrees celsius in Russia, with only a week or two of mild weather in Mongolia. It was so cold in Krasnoyarsk and Yekaterinburg that I bought an over-the-top winter jacket. Since buying it, the weather has got a bit milder but it's good to have the reassurance that when the next cold snap hits I'll be ready.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


We're about to leave Yekaterinburg for a 30-hour train journey to Moscow. Even though there are interesting places in between such as Kazan, Perm, and Vladimir, we've decided to go straight there in order to give us enough time to enjoy Moscow and St Petersburg. I was also getting a bit tired of traveling one night on a train then seeing a city for only one day and then getting back on the train - it'll be nice to spend a few days in one place.

Yekaterinburg was where the Romanovs were executed by the Bolsheviks after the revolution in 1917. We visited the church that now stands on the site of the house where they were killed. Since the fall of communism, the family have been made saints by the Russian orthodox church and there were plenty of postcards and mementos of them being sold there.

The city is also regarded as being on the border between Europe and Asia, lying as it does along the Ural mountains. So I have now officially ended my journey through Asia and am beginning my trip through Europe. Although I haven't planned much at this stage, my tentative aim is to travel from St Petersburg to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (where the visas are easier to come by than in Belarus and the Ukraine) and from there to Poland. Once I hit the EU I no longer need to worry about visas because I'm the lucky owner of a UK passport.

Romanov death site

Incomprehensible blurb about the Europe - Asia border

Still in Siberia

10 September

We spent one night in Novosibirsk, a city that was only founded after the Trans-Siberian Railway was built. The temperature is dropping and I’ve caught a cold so I’m on the lookout for a scarf and woolen hat. We spent a night in Omsk and briefly had a look at the Literature Museum which had a section on Dostoyevsky who spent several years in the 1850s in Omsk when he was exiled to Siberia for political activities. I was excited to see hand-written pages by him though I have no idea what they say. Now we’re back on board a train heading for Yekaterinburg, a place probably most famous for where the Tsar and his family were executed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries.

The trains have been very comfortable so far. We’ve caught overnight trains with sleeping berths the entire way, except for the six-hour journey from Novosibirsk to Omsk. Early on, we booked second-class tickets which gave us beds in four-berth cabins. As we’ve headed west, the prices have gone up so we’re now in third-class which have open cabins and more beds packed in. This actually is not so bad, because the open-plan design means it is less stuffy than the closed cabins. We stock up on snacks before getting on board but also buy food from sellers on the platforms and from the onboard sellers.

There are kilometer markers along the tracks, indicating distance from Moscow. When we first crossed the border from Mongolia, the marker was Km5900. As we’ve travelled west, the distances from Moscow at the places we’ve stopped have been: Ulan Ude 5642, Irkutsk 5185, Krasnoyarsk 4098, Novosibirsk 3335, and Omsk 2712.

War and Peace update: a guy betted he could drink a bottle of rum while sitting on a high windowsill and did so. A Prince Andrew moaned about his wife and women in general. I’m taking a break from all that excitement to read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which is about being in a labour camp in Siberia.

Lenin statue in Novosibirsk

Dostoyevski's handwritten pages

Stolby Nature Reserve

7 September

We caught a bus out to where we thought we could get a chair-lift to have good views of the rock pillars but once we got off the bus couldn’t find where to go next. But two men spoke to us and through our tiny bits of Russian and their tiny bits of English, we got the idea that they were willing to guide us to the right place in exchange for 500 rubles. So we set off on a walk uphill through a birch forest. This was a steep walk and hard-going considering that we hadn’t prepared for any kind of trek. There were also annoying insects biting us which we later realised were ticks, and possibly encephalitis-bearing ones. Just as we were getting tired and about to turn back we spotted a large stolby through the trees and climbed it for good views of other stolbies and Krasnoyask and the surrounding area. It was a bit of a risky venture, being led into a forest by two stangers but I stayed at the back and had my pocketknife handy in case there was any trouble. Once we got back to town we were still finding ticks on us, and so took showers at the railway station before boarding our train to Novosibirsk.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Kristen and I are now in Krasnoyask, a city that is about halfway on our journey from Beijing to Moscow. We arrived at four in the morning and had a terrible time finding a hotel but now we're rested and about to go and see some 'stolbys', which are rock pillars. Yesterday we went on board the SV Nikolay, the boat that took Lenin down the Yenisey river when he was sent into exile in Siberia and which is now an excellent museum.

During the long train journeys I have started reading 'War and Peace' by Tolstoy which may turn out to be the greatest endurance test of my journey. I'm reading it on my iPhone. I've never read a whole book electronically before, preferring the paper variety, so this a major test of the new format. My electronic copy runs to 5119 pages, though at least the pages are smaller than paper ones. So far a Pavlova woman has been moaning about Napoleon, had a sympathetic moan with a prince about his two hopeless sons, and is now holding a party trying to matchmake one of those sons. Not sure if I can manage another five thousand pages of this stuff. Might also switch to paper if the electronic format starts bugging me.

We've also heard about the major earthquake that occurred in Christchurch and hope everyone is coping okay. It sounds as though just about every house has lost its chimney, so maybe this will turn about to be the catalyst for improving the city's smog problem.

SV Nikolay

Mosaic of Lenin and followers outside Krasnoyarsk railway station

Me standing outside the Palace of Culture of the Combine Harvester Builders.

A sports bar in Krasnoyarsk had pictures of Jonah Lomu painted on its outside walls!

Olkhon Island

I stayed two nights on this island in the middle of Lake Baikal in Siberia, enjoying pleasant walks to a beach and a forest. The highlight was probably going for a swim. The water was incredibly cold and I only stayed in it for 10 minutes but no one else was swimming and they were all very impressed that I had. I figured it was worth it just to be able to say that I have swum in Lake Baikal. I also enjoyed a 'banya', a Russian sauna and also ate smoked 'omul' a fish that is native to Baikal.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


We arrived here this morning after a 10-hour train journey from Ulan Ude. Irkutsk is the main city in the Siberia region and the main point from which to visit Lake Baikal. After a month traveling together, Kristen and I have decided to give each other some space, so while she will visit the southern part of the lake around a town called Listvyanka, I am taking a two-night journey to Olkhon Island which is further north and the lake's biggest island. The island is home to the Buryat people who are of Mongolian descent who are also present throughout this region - the province that Ulan Ude is in is actually called Buryatiya which was also the name of our hotel there. I leave tomorrow morning and there is no internet or even telephone reception on the island so I will report back in four days' time.

From Mongolia to Russia

After our trip to the Mongolian countryside we needed quite a few days’ rest in Ulan Bator, or at least I did. We had vague plans of taking another trip out of the city, perhaps to a national park, but they never came to fruition mainly due to inertia and probably fearing that it could be as disappointing as our first trip. So Kristen and I ended up spending about ten days in UB, visiting museums and other sights, including the Gandan monastry, one of the few Buddhist monastries in the country that wasn’t totally destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s. (Although nominally independent, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state from 1920s to 1990.) There are also some great dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum and apparently Mongolia is a major area for discovering dinosaur remains. I also enjoyed the Mongolian History Museum. The most famous person in the country’s history is of course Genghis Khan and it was interesting to learn about his empire that stretched from east to west in the 12th and 13th centuries. Genghis has a reputation in the west simply as an aggressive conquerer but in Mongolia he is regarded as a progressive hero. There seem to be good grounds for the latter view. While Europe was marked by religious absolutism in the middle ages, Genghis practised religious toleration, permitting Christian churches and Muslim mosques as well as Buddhist temples in his capital.

Shop in Ulan Bator - was he French-Scottish?

Beatles monument in Ulan Bator

One of the biggest disappointments of Mongolia is the unfriendliness of the people. I had my expectations lifted by reading in several guidebooks that Mongols are a very friendly people who will always welcome to you into their homes. Well, the families on our trip were not like that and if anything, the people in UB were worse. Shop workers were almost never polite, grunting in response to anything said to them. Asking for help usually resulted in lazy dismissals or being rudely laughed at. Hotel staff were grumpy. There were a few friendly Mongols but even though there are some places I’d like to come back to visit one day, I don’t see myself returning to Mongolia anytime soon.

We managed to book tickets on the busy train to Ulan Ude in Russia for August 29 (two days later than we wanted), departing at 9pm. We hadn’t found out how fast the train was and so had no idea when we’d be arriving but after confused conversations with the other passengers sharing our cabin, we got the idea that we’d be arriving in Sukhbaatar (a city at the border named after a hero of Mongolia’s fight for independence from China in the 1920s) at 7am. I awoke just before then and was the only passenger to do so. For half an hour I wandered along the platform, looked at the city, found a cup of coffee and played with a puppy while everyone else slept. Eventually others began to stir and we began the elaborate process of being checked by Mongolian immigration, traveling a few more minutes over the border and then going through Russian customs and immigration. This took an unbelievably long time, starting at around 8am and it wasn’t until 3.30pm that we finally started off on our way again. Something dodgy was happening in the cabin next to ours - a woman from there had previously stashed some clothing in our cabin. Customs searched her cabin thoroughly, confiscating stuff and they eventually came to our cabin and asked whose the clothing was and then, when we said we didn’t know, they took that too. I think the woman was smuggling clothing across the border to sell. I wondered if she would get into much trouble, having heard that Russian border officers can be scary, but we saw her later and didn’t notice any bruises. We had no problems at all. Those Russian visas that were so difficult to get were all in order and we were as joyous with relief as it’s possible to be on a train when one has not had enough sleep.

From the Russian border, a restaurant car had been attached to the train and we spent a while in it drinking beer, enjoying the very Russian decor and wincing at the awful Russian electro-pop that was being played too loud. I had been wondering what Russia would be like over the border. Would there be a sudden change from asian people and culture to caucasian? Or would, as I suspected, people and things look just the same as in Mongolia, with only a gradual change as we headed west? As it turned out, the change was more drastic than I was expecting. Suddenly the houses were more western-looking and while asiatic people were still very present, there were now many more people with paler complexions.

We arrived at Ulan Ude at 9pm last night. The city’s main claim to fame is possessing the biggest Lenin head in the world, an eight metre bronze sculpture that dominates the central square. The people here are a mix of roughly half caucasians and half mongols with plenty of people who look like a mixture of both. It’s interesting to see how integrated they are. They do not stick to their own ethnic groups and it is common to see friends of different races together. I wonder if that will continue (as I hope) or will the striving for ‘ethnic cleansing’ that has so marked eastern Europe in the late-20th and early-21st centuries (and is happening again in the Balkans according to recent reports) come here too. We’ve bought tickets for the train to Irkutsk leaving tonight and will spend several days there, giving us a chance to visit Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest lake.