We arranged a flight from Berlin to Moscow and arrived in Russia early November. Our journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway would soon begin, but first we needed to stop in Moscow for a couple of days to stock up extra warm clothing that would help us withstand the below freezing temperatures.
Arriving in Moscow and after navigating our way through the Russian Metro (which we had previously experienced two years previously), we stayed with our first CouchSurfing host Yuri. Surfacing from the Metro station, we were immediately greeted by a flurry of snow falling and with a blanket of snow that covered the roads, pavements, cars, and buildings. Already below zero, and after quickly checking the temperature of -5, we quickly made our way to Yuri’s flat.
CouchSurfing is an app that allows us to stay with amazing locals and have an authentic travel experience in their town or city. It is the best way to get to know a place, with local insights and recommendations, and with hosts willing to welcome us into their homes, it is a great way to make some friends all over the world.
On first impressions Yuri was very rushed as he showed us around his small flat before promptly leaving the room to sit in the kitchen with his dog Kusya. As CouchSurfing was a new experience for us, we thought he would be a bit more welcoming, so after a while of organising our belongings, we attempted to make conversation with Yuri. He was nervous about the level of his English to communicate with us, but it was long before he was chatting away about his work, Russian people and politics, and he even gave us recommendations on a good shopping outlet to buy some warm winter jackets. With the snow ceasing to stop, it was essential to be suited and booted before we boarded the train towards even colder temperatures.
The following day, we bought our first leg of our Trans-Siberian Railway journey to our first stop of Ekaterinburg, a 30-hour train ride and 1,778 km away. After some research and experience with Russians not speaking English very well, we eventually communicated the ticket, destination, and class of ticket we wanted. Following that we took the Metro to Red Square, which is considered the centre of Moscow, and wandered around the snowy streets, taking a walk around the city square plaza towards St Basil’s Cathedral, and then the brilliantly lit up shopping mall nearby which was covered in twinkling fairy lights.
That night we managed to cram two other CouchSurfers into Yuri’s flat. We chatted to them for a while: a Chinese girl who had just completed the Trans-Siberian journey from China to Moscow, who gave us some information about the train journey itself, and also a Chinese guy who had been travelling and camping across Europe by bicycle and was now on his way to China via the Trans-Siberian a few days later.
The next morning, wanting to run a few errands before we boarded our train, we headed to Moscow centre with our backpacks. After being stuck in queue for over an hour with the less than helpful post office staff who had no interest in urgency or regards to time, we hurried to our train station as quick as we could. Cutting it extremely fine, and practically running with our backpacks as much as we could through the Russian Metro system, we arrived at our departing station with one minute to spare, but with no sign or information boards as to which platform our train was leaving from. Frantically running around trying to find it, Dave finally spotted one which had just left the station and consequently was too late to then board.
Gutted, frustrated, and slightly disheartened that our Trans-Siberian journey had been delayed, we found a Russian policeman that could speak more then a few words of English and could string understandable sentences together. He helped us part exchange our train tickets for a later train eight hours later that night, and also helped arrange a partial refund as well. A friendly policeman who really helped us out and took the time out of patrolling to do so, we thanked him and even took a selfie with him before heading for some lunch, wifi, and shops to buy food for the train.
Wanting to keep the Trans-Siberian train costs to a minimum, (apart from missing our very first train!), we opted for 3rd class tickets. This meant that unlike 1st class where there are two beds in a private room, with a shower at the end of the carriage, or 2nd class where four people were in a private room, 3rd class gave us a beds in a carriage that were open, two beds up and two beds down with beds running along the other wall, one up and one down. The cheapest option, but also the best way to meet people, we only had access to toilets (a hole in the ground!), and hot water. We bought our own tea bags, pasties, bread and fruit, and packet soup to sustain our meals for the journey. With our new train to Ekaterinburg arriving, we boarded our train and prepared ourselves for the long journey ahead. Sleeping on the top bunks we settled in, reading, sleeping, eating, and staring out the window at the amazing scenery passing us by.
As the train pulled into Ekaterinburg which was now the third largest city in Russia, and a major industrial and economic base for the country, we caught the Metro to meet our next CouchSurfing host Sergey. Sergey collected us, and drove us to his family home, which in contrast to Yuri’s was luxurious to us. A big family home, with a big double bedroom in contrast to a sofa bed for us to sleep on, we were grateful for Sergey accepting our request to stay with him and his family.
After a much needed shower and sleep, we met the rest of Sergey’s family, his wife Katya, and two children Lisa and Igor. They dropped us off at the local Military Technology Museum which housed a vast indoor and open-air collection of tanks, armoured vehicles, planes and trains. Located in the small town of Verkhnaya, just outside Ekaterinburg, we walked around the many types of vehicles from the Second World War which were in surprisingly good condition.
Instructions of how to get back to Sergey’s village in hand, we walked through the village of Verkhnaya which was beautiful walking through the quiet neighbourhood streets surrounded in snow before catching the bus back to their house.
Arriving back that evening, we were greeted by Sergey and Katya who were cooking dinner. Getting to know them all whilst congregating in the kitchen, Sergey who loves to cook gave us some Russian cooking tips as we helped out with dinner. He was making Solyanka, which is a delicious mixed meat soup with a vegetable broth.
Learning Russian cooking skills with Sergey in the kitchen and talking to Katya, Lisa and Igor, Dave and myself immediately felt right at home! It was an absolute joy to be in a family environment after what seemed so long. We stayed talking into the early hours of the morning laughing and joking like we had been friends for ages.
With the longest lie-in that we had possibly had our whole trip, we wrapped up in our warmest clothes and walked down the snow covered road, past the forest trees, and down towards the beautiful lake of Baltym which had been iced over because it was so cold. Currently shivering in temperatures of -27, I was definitely struggling to appreciate the beauty of the ice lake! As we breathed in through our noses, we could feel the tiny hairs freeze up; it was so cold even my eyelashes had ice crystals forming on them. Short walk around the edge of the lake we also saw a couple of people ice fishing along random points of the lake.
Dave went to inspect with a closer look whilst I tried to find some shelter against the freezing cold wind. Keen to get back to the warmth of the house, I hopped from one foot to the other until Dave came back with a massive grin after witnessing the man fishing with a simple line, hook and bait.
The man looked properly wrapped up and I knew then that my warm jacket either needed to be ankle length or that I needed some warm winter trousers. We ran back to the house to warm up and relaxed a while before waiting for Sergey to finish his work to show us around the city centre of Ekaterinburg.
Once Sergey was ready to leave, we again wrapped up warm to head out. Sergey had recommended a cheap outdoor clothing shop which would be our first stop on our way into town. We both bought some salopettes which would hopefully do the job as an extra layer and barrier against the snow and wind. Sufficiently kitted out, Sergey then dropped us outside Visotsky Business Centre, the tallest tower in Ekaterinburg which had an amazing view from the top floor observation deck. Getting the lift up to the 52nd floor, we stepped out onto the 360 observation platform to see the snow covered city below and the Iset River running through which was iced over and also covered in a blanket of snow. It looked like a winter wonderland shining in the sunlight.
We spent a while walking around the top before getting too cold and taking the lift down one level to have a bite to eat in the restaurant and appreciate the beautiful view from a warm seat.
Leaving the Visotsky tower, we walked towards the Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent (quite the mouthful!) which was built as a memorial on the site where the last Tsar of Russia and his family were executed. Even though the site was demolished, the basement remained and and is part of the church’s present structure. A sneaky peak inside, we then moved onto the path running along the riverside which gave us a stunning view of the city in the sunset light, before heading back to our home from home.
As our next train wasn’t until the following evening, we woke up early and dropped Igor off at school, before heading towards Sergey’s tennis club to play a game; Sergey loves tennis, and plays most days so it was a pleasure to share this passion with him. After proving just how badly my tennis skills are, we had lunch and made our way to the supermarket. Our last evening with Sergey and his family, we had offered to cook as our way to thank them all for being so hospitable.
We had a really lovely evening cooking, laughing and joking together over the pizza dinner made. After such a lovely and homely CouchSurfing experience, we were sad to be leaving them, but excited for our next stop along the Trans-Siberian.
During our train ride to Krasnoyarsk, we passed some beautiful snow landscapes through the Russian countryside and small villages. Little communities of small wooden houses were grouped together surrounded by vast amounts of snow and frozen forest tree valleys.
Following another 30-hour train journey, we arrived in the even colder Krasnoyarsk which is known for its nature and one of the most beautiful cities in Siberia due to its location next to the Yenisei River. Our next CouchSurfing host Yakov picked us up from the train station and drove us to his apartment, which although looked small from the outside, was surprisingly big inside. He showed us around, and we spoke over breakfast and coffee as we got to know him and the city he lived in. He passionate about his city, and had even taken a couple of days off work to show us around!
As we drove through the city towards the centre, Yakov was the perfect host as he gave us an explanation of buildings and important places that we were passing. A quick phone call to his dad, Yakov took us to his art school, where he studied architecture and where his dad currently worked as a ceramic and sculpture tutor. Looking around it felt like I was back at art school, with sculpture and paintings everywhere. His dad was a lovely friendly character, and after biscuits and tea they showed us around the university building and the works that students had made, giving us a sample of clay pottery as a souvenir before we left.
Our next stop was the famous Cable Bridge over the Yenisei River. Surrounded in its wintery snow, the River looked amazing, with what at first looked like fog or heavy air pollution, we were surprised to see that the River itself had steam rising from; the water was warm, but the air temperature was -27 degrees making the cable bridge look magnificently magical and dramatic in the mist and cold winter air. Hundreds of ducks gathered below as they played and swam happily in the Yenisei.
Nearby, Yakov took us to the Krasnoyarsk Museum Center, filled with the region’s history and the work of local artists, we walked around the cool architecture of the building, as looked at some if the exhibitions of the Dada Sharmans who live in northern Russia, memorials from the war, amongst many others.
That evening whilst we walked around the centre of Krasnoyarsk, in our big jackets and ski trousers, hats and gloves, the air felt even colder than we had ever experienced before. At -33 degrees, we tried to to walk around the city, but with feet and hands freezing to the point of going numb, we managed to move quickly from coffee shop to coffee shop between our short amounts of time in the cold. It was impossible to spend more than ten minutes walking around before the temperature began to feel unbearable, and a hot drink was needed plus a good thirty minutes of warming up! Meeting Yakov, he took us to his favourite Italian restaurant before heading back to his place for an early night.
Waking up the next day, Yakov took us to a forest nearby which was abundant with trees covered in snow. Driving to the highest point on the hill, we overlooked the forest which looked beautiful against the misty air, blue sky, and rising sun. It was stunning!
A goodbye to Yakov, and with some sandwiches and fruit packed for the train, Yakov took us to the train station and waved us goodbye. It was lovely to have stayed with him; he was so generous with his time and very hospitable – a genuinely nice guy who was a pleasure to stay with in Krasnoyarsk.
On our train journey to Irkutsk, as well as yet more amazing scenery, we met and spoke to many Russians through Google translate, and hand gestures. They found us a novelty travelling on the train at this time of the year, and we spent ages talking, laughing at miscommunication, and getting to know each other as best we could. Having people to talk to on the train was enjoyable and made our long journey seem that little bit quicker (but not hugely quicker as we were on the train this time for almost two and a half days!)
Located in Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk is by far the most popular stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Eastern Russia. The famous Lake Baikal is a mere 70km away, and the city is the best base from which to visit it.
After spending a couple of days in Irkutsk taking some down time and catching up on a lot of much needed sleep, we went on a day trip to Lake Baikal. Wrapping up in our warmest of clothes was now part of our normal routine when venturing out in Russia – it was just too cold to do anything else! The Russians were wrapped up warm as well, but the ladies definitely did Winter in a more glamorous way with various coloured fur coats and hats, and knee high boots. Walking to the main bus station, we caught a minibus to the Lake, an hour and a half away. With the heating on full blast, we drifted in and out of snoozing until we arrived.
The world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake, the breathtaking Lake Baikal curves for nearly 400 miles through south-eastern Siberia, north of the Mongolian border. More than 5,000 feet deep, the lake’s cold, oxygen-rich waters teem with bizarre life-forms. We were surrounded by stunning mile-high snowcapped mountains with vistas of immense beauty. The mountains are still a haven for wild animals, and the small villages are still outposts of tranquillity and self-reliance in the remote Siberian taiga forest.
The number of tourists was low, and we took advantage of the quiet season by taking a walk around the lake and up into the forest mountains. With just our footprints making tracks in the snow, we were able to walk undisturbed in the quiet surroundings and mountainside forests.
Making our way back down to the Lake, we were greeted by stunning views of the sun as it set with gorgeous hues of yellow, orange and pink reflecting wonderfully in the calm lake water.
Admiring the sunset until dark, we caught the last minibus back to Irkutsk, where we gathered our backpacks to stay with our CouchSurfing host Jane. She showed us to her flat, which had an amazing balcony view over Irkutsk, and we spent the night chatting and getting to know her. Even though meeting Jane, and staying with her for just a short time, it was lovely to see yet more kind hospitality from the Russians. We got on straight away and she was so down to earth and easy to talk to; we chatted into the early hours of the morning before finally falling asleep.
Early the next morning, we caught a taxi to the train station to board our next train to Ulan-Ude. The seven hour journey, (our shortest yet on the Trans-Siberian Railway), was the best yet. Our day train took us along Baikal Lake which seemed to stretch on for miles and miles. Leaving Irkutsk behind, we started to climb the Primorsky Mountains, and we could see the snow covered Sayan mountains in the distance. The scenery was picturesque and intensely beautiful, with the Lake on one side and the boundless Taiga forest to the other. It was a pleasure to see, and possible the nicest way to enjoy the view and the changing sky as sunset neared, from our cosy and warm bunk beds in our nearly empty train carriage.
We arrived at Ulan-Ude train station that evening, where we met our next CouchSurfing host Julia. Outside the front of the station we met Julia and another couch surfer Erol, who would be also staying with her; the four of us loaded a taxi with three backpacks and travelled to Julia’s house, getting to know each other in the meantime. Erol, who was also travelling along the Trans-Siberian route, had started his journey from Moscow after travelling from his home in Switzerland. We spoke about where we had been so far and found that we had a lot in common – it was so nice to meet a fellow traveller who was doing a similar journey to us and in the off season too who had also quit his job to travel and experience the world!
Julia lives with her mum and grandma – they were all so welcoming and friendly as we were introduced. We bonded over eating traditional meat dumplings called Pozi, and playing a Russian card game called Durak, (hard to grasp at first but a really good card game).
The following day, Julia kindly took us to Ivolginsky Datsan, located in East Siberia near Lake Baikal, and the most important Buddhist monastery in Russia. The temple complex is pleasantly situated in a wide green valley overlooked by mountain peaks, and includes several temples, a library, hotel, a center for Buddhist learning, a museum of Buryat art, service buildings and houses for lamas.
The focus of the site is the main temple, protected by painted tigers and elaborately decorated inside. The interior is a riot of colors, with painted dragons spiraling up columns, and hundreds of portraits and statues of the Buddha in various incarnations. We were very lucky that we had timed our visit so well to visit the phenomenon that continues to intrigue and attract believers by the thousands — the preserved body of Dashi-Dorzho the Khambo Lama, who died in 1927 and is still sitting upright in the lotus position, and which resides in the main temple where his body is kept in a glass case on an upper floor. Exhibited for seven days a year, on Buddhist holidays, Itigilov sits in a glass case in front of the large Buddha statue in the temple, dressed in bright gold and orange robes. His body is slumped slightly forward, and his eyes and nose are now sunken in.
The monastery attracts visitors and pilgrims in numbers; pilgrims began their visit by walking a clockwise path around the monastery, placing coins in collection boxes and spinning mounted prayer wheels of all shapes and sizes. We waited in line as Monks hurried awed observes past the glass case, blessing us as we passed with Itigilov’s scarf to our foreheads. We invariably lingered in the temple as long as possible whilst others gave offerings of money and food, backing away from Itigilov’s case with tiny steps, as we followed the crowd out backwards. A truly bizarre but incredible experience, we will never forget it.
Julia, Erol, Dave and myself grabbed a bite in the local small cafe (with very limited food), to warm ourselves up from being outside most of the day. We then jumped into the next bus which took us back to Ulan-Ude’s main square dominated by The Giant Head of Lenin. This unique bronze monument, weighing 42 tons and having a height of 14 meters, was constructed in honor of the centenary of Lenin’s birth in 1970. A huge presence overlooking the centre square the head stands proudly.
The next day as Julia had classes to attend, Erol, Dave and myself took a bus to The Ethnographic Museum of Buryatia, one of Russia’s largest open-air museums filled with historical findings from the era of Huns, including a unique collection of wooden architecture of Siberian people. The exhibition is divided into several complexes: Evenks, Prebaikalian Buryat, Transbaikalian Buryat, Russian Cossacks, Old Believers, Old Verkhneudinsk, and Wildlife Park. We strolled through the museum but were unable to look inside the yurts of tepees as we were out of season, and many of the exhibition findings located outside were covered in snow.
We headed back to the centre of town to buy our bus tickets to Ulaan Baator, the capital city of Mongolia. Erol was moving in the same direction as well so we all decided to leave Ulan-Ude together the next day. The train to Ulaan Baator would take longer than the bus, due to the train having to stop along the border in order to change the train wheels, (train tracks were a different width in Mongolia than Russia, which added to travel time).
Whilst at the bus station, after going back and forth as we needed to pay by cash, we bumped into a couple from Slovakia and Germany who told us about the amazing adventure they had just had in Mongolia. They told us about hunting with eagles in Western Mongolia, where they stayed with a local family, rode on horseback, and saw wild Mongolia at its best. Without hesitation or discussing it with each other, all three of us said yes, it sounded like the perfect thing to do and was the opportunity of a lifetime. Bus tickets in hand, we were excited for the next stage of our trip.