Across the border into Russia, we travelled through the valley of Mongolia’s largest river, the Selenga, to Ulan-Ude, capital of the republic of Buryatia. It is a fascinating city, with a strong Buddhist culture and the largest sculpture of the head of Lenin. We walked around parks with beautiful flower beds, saw many high-rise buildings and old-style wooden buildings with ornamental trimmings. We watched Cossack dancing and attended a local concert … then back on the train.
The next highlight was a day around the beautiful 640km long Lake Baikal – the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1700m) fresh-water lake in the world. It has its own microclimate around its shores! There are 39 train tunnels spanning 200 kms alongside the lake! Amazing railroad construction started as early as the turn of the 19th century.
On a clear day you can see 40 meters into the lake, home to numerous species of animals and plants, and the only fresh water seals, Nerpas. The omul – the most popular fish in the lake – is the main food source for the locals. Highlights were Port Baikal and a ferry trip across to the village with a huge food and cultural market. Some brave tourists swam in the icy waters, and we were treated to an evening BBQ and picnic on its shores, while being entertained by local musicians.
ln lrkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, with its many neo-classical and wooden buildings decorated with ornate fretwork, we visited the Memorial Decembrist Museum, in a house set up by the wives of noblemen who had been sent to Siberian prisons. These nine wives brought culture, music and books to lrkutsk.
We enjoyed a concert, featuring grand piano music and singing in a gracious dining area furnished in the style of those times (1850s). Many religions are practised there, and Russian orthodox and Roman Catholic churches abound. We were treated to a fabulous lunch by a Russian family in their dacha (summer home) in the Taiga forests next to a beautiful lake: salads, soup, breads, a chicken dish with broccoli, desserts, vodka and coffee!
Situated on the Ob river, Novosibirsk (the largest city in Siberia) was a great place to stroll around and explore Siberian wooden architecture, monuments, the Opera House and a lively music and art scene. lt’s a well-known scientific and education hub. Novosibirsk is the richest part of Russia, with reserves of oil, gold, nickel and coal, transported via the rivers South to North, and via trains from East to West.
From the train, we viewed the diverse landscape of eastern Siberia and enjoyed talks on board about the region: the Gulags, 1905 Revolution, and prisoners sent to labour camps (by mid-60s 20 million had passed through the Gulag system of camps).
We had vodka-tasting with typical Russian snacks and red caviar, experiencing first-hand the Russian festive customs of hospitality and toasts! We were treated to a typical Russian tea ceremony, a popular cultural activity with the samovar, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, cranberry juice and sherry. Russians are the biggest tea consumers in the world!
Yekaterinburg, the capital of Ural Federal District (33 hours east of Moscow by train), is located on the cusp of Europe and Asia. Here Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered in 1918. On this spot, a gorgeous Byzantine-style ‘Church Upon the Blood’ was built in 2003 to commemorate that tragic historic event. The city has a Soviet look about the buildings, opera theatre, railway yards, and is a University and education hub.
Our day in Kazan was extremely busy – it is the Tatar capital on the banks of the Volga. We visited the only surviving Tatar fortress in Russia, and the huge Kremlin, now a World Heritage Site on account of the many historic buildings. There are 140 different temples and mosques in Kazan, and everyone lives in peace.
On 19 July, we arrived in at the Moscow station, 850 years old. This city has a population of 12 million, but, include daily commuters and it rises to 15 million. 10% are Muslims, labour migrants from the republics. Our guide said there is no unemployment in Moscow, no ghettos and many people have dachas (cottages) in the country used in September.
The city had been beautified over the last few years for the Soccer World Cup, completed just before our arrival: floral displays, hanging flower baskets adorning the streets, abundant trees and flowers in pavement gardens and through Red Square towards the Kremlin. Fairy lights light up the buildings of the GUM shopping centre in the evening, and Lenin’s Mausoleum can be seen across the Square. St Basil’s Cathedral is an amazing sight day and night!
Our visit to the Kremlin was incredible; there was so much to see: 800 years of Russian history and artistry in one place.
Going down into the Metro is an amazing experience: the longest escalators ever, filled with people going up and down at 9pm! The trains travel at 40kms an hour, stopping at beautifully decorated stations underground, tiled to perfection, with artwork on ceilings and bronze statues – a free history lesson and art exhibition all in one!
Sadly, our time in Moscow came to an end as we departed on Friday evening to return to Johannesburg via Dubai.
So ended an epic and legendary rail tour, a total of 7858 kms. lt was a most remarkable journey for me, especially seeing such a vastly different part of the world and the pleasure of making new friends with similar interests.