Summer in Siberia – Siberia/Russian Federation

Summer in Siberia
Siberia/Russian Federation

Last summer, I spent the last couple of days of June, all of July and most of August in the Russian Federation. When I told my friends, family and co-workers I was headed for Siberia, most of them seemed to think this was an extremely unusual and unattractive destination, and warned me to bring warm clothes and a winter coat. Wrong. Siberia turned out to be beautiful, interesting and fun, and weather-wise it was the loveliest summer I ever experienced, apart from some rainy days.

My first destination was Moscow. The first thing I saw when I left the train station was the Hotel Leningradskaya, one of the “Seven Sisters”, 7 very impressive buildings from the Stalinist age. “Wow, I am going to love this city,” I thought. And I did love the architecture, and the metro, but all things considered I don’t think Moscow was a very good first introduction to Russia. I spent half a day looking for an affordable place to stay, and ended up in a hotel that cost 1000 Rubel (= 27 €, 35 $ or 19 £) a night and didn’t even have hot water. People weren’t very friendly. English speakers were hard to find, even in hotels they always had to call someone, which wouldn’t have surprised me in the middle of Siberia, but in Moscow it did. Buying a train ticket to Novosibirsk wasn’t as easy as it sounds either, as the list that said for which destination you had to go to which window wasn’t very obvious, and the ticket seller at the first (wrong) window I waited for didn’t give out any more information than “nyet.”

But once I got on the train, none of that mattered. Sharing food and (lots of) drinks, communicating in broken English, broken Russian and by pointing at words in the dictionary, sleeping half the day � such is life on Russian trains. Second class compartments are much more comfortable than on most European overnight trains, and there is always hot water for tea.

I would be in Novosibirsk for 4 weeks, attempting to learn Russian at the NGU (Novosibirsk State University), which is located in Akademgorodok, about a 40 minutes drive away from the centre. In the fifties, this place was chosen as the best in the country for the ideal academic community. So they literally planted a university town in the middle of the taiga, on the shores of the Ob sea. The natural surroundings are amazing, but the buildings and roads look like no one looked after them for the last 20 years.

I really liked the language program � the groups were small, the atmosphere was pleasant and informal, we got free tea and snacks during break time, classes didn’t start too early, and there was the occasional excursion. We went to the zoo and the botanical garden, but the best of all was the day we took a boat trip on the Ob sea to a desert island, where we swam, played in the water, enjoyed the sun (definitely no need for a winter coat), made “shashlik” (barbecued meat on a skewer), drank beer and lemonade, and sang or listened to Russian songs.

Building Views
Building Views
I also greatly enjoyed living in Akademgorodok. I would walk everywhere through the forest (the shade was very welcome during the warmest hours of the day), and look at the trees out of my dorm room window, trying to imagine what it must’ve been like before they built the town, when there was nothing but dense taiga. It wasn’t something that was hard to imagine. In the centre, outside the well-stocked department store and supermarket, babushkas sold fruit and vegetables while kids were skating and people gathered to drink beer, eat ice creams, play the guitar or just hang out with friends. Nearby was the beach, which was unfortunately very dirty, it’s really shocking how much Russians will litter (walking around barefoot one constantly had to take care not to step on broken glass) in such beautiful surroundings.

The centre of Novosibirsk was some 45 minutes away by “marshrutka”. Marshrutkas are mini-busses that are faster, much more frequent and only slightly more expensive than busses. Despite its size, Novosibirsk is a very pleasant city. There’s not that much to see from a tourist point of view, but I would much rather live there than in Moscow, and the people that live here did seem to be a lot happier, and certainly much friendlier. My favourite places were the park with its big fountain, and the beautiful opera theatre, and there were always some buskers adding to the atmosphere.

After the course was over and I got my free T-shirt, I headed for Irkutsk. The 30-hour train journey there was mostly uneventful, but it was interesting to see a rising number of wooden houses in the villages along the railway line, I had only seen a few of those in Novosibirsk.

I only stayed in Irkutsk for a day and a half, but frankly I didn’t think it was that special. It’s beautiful and all, and much older than Novosibirsk, but to me it was just another city. I did love that I could get a closer look at the wooden houses, which are plentiful even in the city centre, though most of them looked rather run-down (not that that surprised me).

Views from the Train
Views from the Train
The train ride from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude was amazing. It goes along the southern shore of lake Baikal for most of the trip, and the views are breath-taking. I just stood in the corridor, taking photos from the open window. I wasn’t the only one, there was a German couple in my car, and a man with mixed Asian and Slavic features (probably the most beautiful combination possible) and his children. He’d obviously taken the trip before, as he warned us for the best photo opportunities. We had a chat in the smoking area later, and he told me he lived in China and was visiting his grandmother and children in Russia. I’ve said it before and will probably say it again : if you’re on a trans-siberian or trans-mongolian trip, make sure you do this stretch by day!

Ulan Ude turned out to be the biggest revelation of the trip. It’s an attractive city with friendly people and a good marshrutka-network. The most attractive area is around the pedestrian part of Lenin street, which is perfect for strolling or just relaxing on one of the benches or in one of the outdoor pubs. Nearby are many well-preserved, elaborately decorated wooden houses. More strange is the statue on Soviet square : the world’s largest head of Lenin. Ulan Ude also has the best museum I visited in Siberia : the open-air ethnological museum. Steer clear of the zoo within its grounds though, unless watching animals locked up in tiny cages display neurotic behaviour is your idea of a good time.

Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatya, one of the “other” republics of the Russian Federation. The population is a mix of Buryats (a people related to Mongolians � Genghis Khan was born near lake Baikal) and Russians, living together peacefully. After an era of horrendous oppression (monasteries were destroyed, lamas were shot, people weren’t allowed to speak Buryat or give their children Buryat names), Buddhism is now the prime religion again, popular amongst Russians as well as Buryats. I went on a guided trip to Ivolginsk Datsan, the most important Buddhist monastery in Buryatya. Quite a fascinating experience! This was arranged by Naran Tour, the same agency that also got me a home-stay. Boris’ appartment was probably the most comfortable place I stayed during the entire trip, and Boris himself was very nice as well. He was around my age and could speak some English, so we got along great.

I also took a daytrip to Gremyachinsk, a pretty little village on lake Baikal. There were some people (and cattle) on the beach close to the village, but I walked a little further away and didn’t see another human being for hours.

I would’ve liked to have spent more time in the Baikal area, but my visa didn’t last forever and I had a special goal in mind. At home, I had traced on a map of the world where you would end up if you kept going straight east from Antwerp. This turned out to be in Nikolaevsk-na-Amure, so I was resolved to get there. I took a train (the real trans-siberian) to Khabarovsk, then another one to Komsomolsk-na-Amure. Komsomolsk (“City of youth”) is not entirely unattractive, but there is an air of loss and sadness hanging over it. The city was founded by young enthusiasts in 1932, but times have changed. In the places I’d been to before, the positive changes were most obvious, but here I could sense the inevitable downside.

From Komsomolsk, I had to continue by boat to get to Nikolaevsk. In another season I might not have gotten there at all : my map shows a minor road (probably a dirt track) for half the way, but beyond that the villages can only be reached by boat in summer, and sometimes by car if the ice is thick enough to drive on in winter. The views from the deck were quite stunning, but unfortunately it was cold and windy so I spent most of the 12-hour journey inside.

Nikolaevsk was sort of an anti-climax. According to Lonely Planet “…a quaint air hangs over Nikolaevsk today, with its tree-lined streets squeezing between many wooden houses” but I would call it sad rather than quaint and the wooden houses are outnumbered by ugly appartment blocks. To add insult to injury, the only hotel in town was full, so I stayed in the cockroach-infested university dorm (they didn’t really have a free room either, but were nice enough to let me stay there anyway, sharing a room with an ancient woman who worked there) for one night, and then took an overnight boat back to Khabarovsk. This wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the trains. Miraculously, I managed to sleep for 9 hours in a small plastic chair anyway. It helped that I had a front seat, so I could lay down my backpack in front of me and stretch my legs on it.

Khabarovsk is somewhat similar to Novosibirsk : not as lively, but there’s a bit more to see. The main boulevard, Muravyov-Amursky street, has great and sometimes unusual architecture. There’s a big park and the waterfront is nice too. I visited the tiny but interesting archaeological museum. There’s some archaeologal sites in the area I would’ve liked to have seen, but my time was really running out now, and luckily the museum had replicas of the famous Sikachi-Alyan petroglyphs in their front yard.

Playing in the Sea
Playing in the Water
After a pleasant train ride back to Ulan Ude, where I learned I may be able to have a simple conversation in Russian but not understand the rules of a card game, I continued by marshrutka to Kyakhta, my last stop in the Russian Federation. The scenery became gradually more spectacular as we went south. Goodbye Siberian taiga, hello Mongolian steppes.

Kyakhta is a very pleasant small town with loads of pretty wooden houses, once (before the trans-siberian railway was completed) an important stop on the tea route. In those days the presently ruined cathedral reputedly had silver doors decorated with diamonds. None of that now, but it certainly seemed a lot less impoverished than Nikolaevsk, and it felt good to be back in Buryatya. The next morning I took a taxi to the Mongolian border, ready for new adventures.

Those first few days in Moscow, I would never have guessed I would end up loving this country and its people as much as I did in the end. It takes some effort to travel around Siberia independently (you need to get an invitation, queue outside the embassy to get a visa, queue to buy train tickets, look hard for budget accommodation and overcome the language barrier), but it’s definitely possible, no matter what travel agencies tell you, and well worth it. And when things get though, you may be rescued by a kind complete stranger, and learn to shrug off any hardships. That’s what Siberians do.

If you would like to read more about my trip, check out my blog.

If you’re planning a trip to Siberia yourself, is a good site to start your research.