A Travellerspoint blog

From Russia with Vodka

Well it’s been about 3 weeks since we left the wonderful motherland. Russia was absolutely everything we imagined it would be and some; we stretched our stay right up until our very last permitting day on our visa and left wishing we could have stayed longer! Obviously we were rather slack with the posting of blogs whilst in Russia so we have plenty of catching up to do… I guess the best place to start would be at the beginning!
The ‘tea blog’ should have given you all a touch of excitement; the Russia blog will just give you an idea of what we’ve been up to and how much fun we’ve been having. So grab a cuppa (or 2) cos' this ones a tad long.

For those not aware we spent all of last month travelling across Siberia aboard the Trans-Siberian rail – an incredible journey! Russia in the winter is an exquisite wonderland full of charm. From its beautiful cathedrals laced with snow to the elegance of the women walking the iced streets in their heels and fur coats, we were literally in awe of this remarkable country from the second we landed.

Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

Joel: After our harrowing experience on the Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk leg of the journey we arrived in the peaceful snow-covered town of Irkutsk greeted by a mild -13 degrees. It felt like summer compared to the -40 extremes we had faced in Mongolia!


Our hostel was in the middle of the city only a short walking distance from bars and the river. We were lucky enough to be sharing our dorm room with an English couple our age and 2 Irish guys. Within hours of our arrival we head out with our newly made friends to grab a feed and hit up a bar. We trekked out into Irkutsk with no idea where we were going and no Russian phrase book to help us out (note to self: NEVER leave the house without said phrasebook). We managed to navigate our way through a cyrillic menu, looking for anything that half resembled an English word, for eg. Carbonara (карбонара) or Margarita (Маргарита), and managed to order ourselves a decent pizza for dinner. Our attempt at getting into a bar afterwards was less successful. We were denied entry into 2 nearly empty bars for what reason we are still unsure of today.

With our tails between our legs we made our way back to the hostel, but not before a quick visit to the local supermarket to grab some plastic 2 litre bottles of beer (yes they sell beer here in very large plastic bottles at various percentages, mine was 8%). Back at the hostel we downed the large, rather unpleasant tasting plastic bottles of beer, getting louder with each cup. With the beer consumed, vodka was the next drink to follow and after a few shots of vodka our conversations were becoming quite colourful.
About ¾ of the way through Renee's excited recital of the tea blog, our 20yr old Russian female hostel manager barged into our room, eyes glaring into our smiling drunken faces. With her fist in the air and index finger pointed she proceeded to give us a stern telling off which went something like this:

Angry hostel staff: "You want drink, you go nightclub. Hostel not allowed to drink, militza come arrest you"
Us: "Sorry we didn't know, we will finish our beer and go to bed"
Angry hostel staff: "No. You want drink you go club now"
Us in our humble whisper voices: "Sorry we will go to bed now."

I have never seen a room full of people silenced so efficiently, I swear this girl could have cut down even the tallest poppy with her cold piercing glare. Something we were all positive she learned from her time in the KGB…

We spent 1 more night in Irkutsk before heading out the Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world which is frozen at this time of year. Baikal is only a short 1.5hr drive from Irkutsk, though having left it til late afternoon to depart we didn’t arrive until 5pm by which it was getting darker by the second and blowing an absolute snow-filled gale outside.
Visibility was around 30m and we had a small map with only a handful of street names and no way of contacting the hostel staff. We walked up and down the town of Listvyanka packs on our back trying to find our hostel. We walked way past our turn, got to the end of the town and had to turn back. When we finally found our street we realised we still had another 30+ mins of trekking up a steep unsealed snow covered road before we would reach the hostel. When we finally reached our hostel it was pretty much night time. Hungry and tired we asked the hostel owner where the nearest food/restaurant would be only to be told that the only food we’d find was back in town – damn it! Luckily for us she could see the hunger in our eyes so offered to cook us some fresh fish that had been caught from the lake that morning. It was a nice intro to traditional Russian food.


At the hostel were 2 guys from Holland who suggested that we try the dog sledding that was offered by the hostel. Telling us how awesome it was we decided to give it a shot. Now the dog sledding is offered in different packages, a 5km course, 10km, 30km and full day. The lads form Holland had done the 10km course which took them 1hr and was awesome (apparently), but freezing at the same time. Knowing all too well the effects of being stuck on any form of animal transport in the cold for any extended period of time we opted for the shorter 5km course, thinking it would take about 30mins.
Well we could rest easy, as it took roughly 5-6mins for the dogs to finish the course. I’m not sure who did the measurements, but there was no way the dogs covered 5km in 5-6mins. I'm pretty sure I would have been able to keep up with them running and when Renee did her lap of the course the dogs actually came to a complete stop… twice, still managing to make it back to the beginning within 6 or so minutes. All in all the 12minutes of meandering dog sledding cost us a cool $100, ripped off.


The next day we wandered across some of the frozen lake as cars and hovercraft passed by and the ice cracked and moved under our feet. Unfortunately for us the 2 days spent there we couldn't see more than 100m onto the lake due to the windy snowstorm that had rolled in and stayed the entire time. Bummer.
We returned to Irkutsk and booked our train to our next stop of the journey.


Renée: Next stop was Yekaterinburg. The journey from Irkutsk to Moscow takes around 4 days so we thought we’d break it up and make a stop after 59 hours in the city located on the geographical border of Asia/Europe.

Our train trip to Yekaterinburg was probably the most fun out of all our train trips. We boarded our train around 7pm, made introductions with our roommate, a 56 year Russian man by the name of Jenya, and settled in for the long journey ahead.

When you’re squashed in a small room with other people for hours on end, making friends and continuously socialising is a given. This can be a little difficult when your roommate speaks only Russian and you English but fortunately a lovely couple by the nickname ‘Davaleigh’ had been kind enough to buy Joel a Russian phrase book for his birthday last year which helped us greatly in getting by – thanks guys!
Book in hand and a couple of beers down we managed some broken conversation and some Russian tutoring from our new friend. By the time we had almost mastered the Russian Cyrillic alphabet it was time for bed.

Come bedtime I sadly reminisced those times we had been lucky to score a cabin all to ourselves! Jenya snored louder than a pen full of hungry pigs at dinner time and choked up his flemmy smokers-lung all night long. It was truly disgusting. I dreamt of owning a large stick and jabbing him straight into his side… or at least that’s what I would have been dreaming of had I been able to get some shut eye myself!
I felt even sorrier for Joel however who was on the bottom bunk, right next to Jenya, and swore he could literally hear the mucus vibrate at the back of his sinus – eww. Apologies if my descriptions make you a little ill – I can only do my best to describe a sound that will be etched in our brains for eternity!


The next day saw us passing by the hours playing cards, learning more Russian lingo, attempting more broken conversation and eating... at every stop Joel and Jenya would jump off the train and explore, grabbing more food, beer and snacks for the journey so we never went hungry! Joel and I had bought a bottle of vodka for the journey though Jenya wasn't too keen on the idea at first. According to him the provodnitsa’s (train attendants) don’t approve of the consumption of spirits in cabins... however four beers later our Russian friend ordered some local cuisine to our cabin, shut the door and beckoned for the vodka. Along with the deep fried pork chop and some strange pickle salad, (which actually tasted like a bun less cheese burger), we cracked open the vodka and proceeded to drink it shot after unmixed shot.

After lunch I tuned out for a bit to relax and get lost in my book. It wasn't long however before I was distracted by the cheer and laughter of two very rowdy men and put the book down to join in the hoorah. Climbing down from my bunk and tuning into their conversation I realised I hadn’t a clue what the guys were talking about! One spoke in English, the other in Russian yet there seemed no language barrier between them, or at least not that they had noticed; I guess what conversations actually DO make sense when you’re rotten drunk on vodka… regardless of what language you speak?! Haha. I could have sworn a few major world issues were being solved in that moment as they both drank and cheered as if they completely understood one another. It was hilarious to sit and watch.


By the end of the night Jenya was devoting much love our way with constant group hugs and annoying pinches my way (like a crab) over and over because he worked out we were both cancerians… wow! We was like peas and carrots ;-)

Though it was lovely to meet the delightful Jenya, I’ll admit I was a rather glad when we arrived in Novosibrisk (Jenya’s final destination) halfway through the 2nd night and bid farewell to his irritating habits of the night. Ahh a couple hours of blissful sleep!
Come morning Jenya’s vacancy was filled with two new cabin guests; a nice girl named Lena and her feline companion, Anja. I’m not sure which was worse… Jenya’s flematious snores or the threating smell of a kitty litter?! Litter aside, we had a nice relaxing day getting to know one another. Lena studied English so we were able to communicate a little better and spent the day helping her with her English and vice versa whilst playing games of checkers.

Sometimes you arrive at a city and it dosent capture your interest at all. Sadly Yekaterinburg was one of these cases. This may be our own fault as we hadn't really explored enough of the place to experience what it might have to offer, but by first impressions it was cold, drab and very uninspiring so we quickly booked our train to Moscow and were out of there the very next morning!


Joel: Cathedrals, Vodka, overpriced coffee and general Russian antics…

We managed to land possibly the most awesome train cabin we could possibly have hoped for. Russian trains have a few different classes, the newest trains are classed as a Firmenny train (a train less that 5yrs old I think). Anyway, I looked at all of the possible trains and times and it just so happened that the most suitable time to leave was at 6am on a Firmenny class train; a touch more expensive, but boy it was worth it. In Australia this would have been a 1st class cabin.
Complete with suede covered seats, a bed with a pillow top mattress, LCD tele with movies, complimentary toothbrush, and a stupidly clean cabin, it was luxury! All in all we had a cruisey trip to Moscow.

Moscow itself was pretty damn awesome; huge cathedrals, 24hr night life, cheap beer, cheap vodka and caviar, old markets where you could buy what I am assuming was a non-serviceable AK-47, oh and there was this thing called the Red Square and some preserved dude named Lenin…!

Anywho, just when we thought we’d escaped the worst of the cold, we arrived in Moscow at some early hour greeted with the -20 degree weather and made our way to our pretty shoddy hostel. We quickly learned that everything was written in Cyrillic and things were a tad difficult to understand, however the hospitality of the Russian people made navigating the Metro and getting around a lot easier than in China. The Russian people may have stern faces and seem hostile but they are very warm and friendly if you call on them for help despite all we’d heard about them being ‘cold’ (these people had obviously never been to China).

We spent most of our days in Moscow just walking around and exploring the massive city. Travelling on the metro system is unlike anything we have in Australia, in fact unlike anywhere else in the world and so getting around is a breeze. In peak hour it’s not uncommon to see the back of one train leaving the station as another train is entering and any travel on the metro system no matter how far your journey will only cost you 25 rubles, or 79c Australian – pretty damn cheap! The metro stations were also an attraction in themselves, many being beautifully designed, often decorated with large statues, marble, carved walls and murals.

Speaking of trains and stations, at nearly station with an escalator you'll find a little old Babushka guarding the top and bottom of each landing. The old, possibly war widowed women sit there in their little glass boxes with their hairy moles, hairy upper lips and glaring beady eyes watching the small black and white security screens all-day-long. Supposedly they ensure the smooth flow of the escalators, but I dont think they actually do much at all, apart from growl and mumble under their breath as youths run past their little glass boxes. Its quite strange.

St Basils Cathedral and the Red Square are one of the greatest things I have seen so far; it was so awesome to finally see in person the domes of St Basils, something I have seen so many times in so many different forms of media. It is just as charming in real life with its towering over the massive open square boldly displaying is colourful, yet unorganised domes and spires. It is literally like seeing something from a movie. Just to top off that movie-like feeling, as you turned around to face the Kremlin you were greeted by people ice skating in the centre of the red square

JJP-14-Feb..12-2891.jpg JJP-14-Feb..12-2900.jpg


Another place I absolutely had to visit was an old soviet era cold war bunker, which went by the name of "Bunker 42" (original hey?). This bunker was built in the 1940's and upgraded in the 1950's after the 2nd world war to withstand nuclear attack, mainly due to paranoia between the US and the USSR. Its 65m underground and could house up to 600 people and provide fresh air, food and water for months if there was an attack above ground. The whole bunker was built in the middle of Moscow in suburbia without any locals even having knowledge of its construction. They take you through a guided tour which is pretty lame, all of the cool stuff that would have been there during the cold war is long gone, they have some faux looking computer consoles that apparently could have launched a nuclear weapon, some communications gear that looked like it was from WW1, plus some army uniforms and guns etc. At one point they turn off all the lights and sound the air raid siren off a CD player, and turn on the fog machine (which didn't work) to simulate an attack. LAAMMMEEEEE!
As our tour finished we walked past probably the coolest part of the whole bunker... An underground club, complete with armed security guards who actually looked like they had worked at the original bunker 42 during the cold war. Excitedly I asked the tour guide if we could get discount entry into the club since we had done the tour, she said no, I asked if we could come back on Friday night and get into the club, she said no, I asked her if I could come here at all, she said no. Frustrated I asked if I could ever get into the club, she said no, not unless you are special from government. Wow exclusive. (apparently you can book this club for corporate events, cant imagine how much that would cost). They also play airsoft games down there too which is kinda cool (for those that dont know, airsoft is like paintball, but with BB pellets and way cooler guns).



St Petersburg

Renée: With only a week and a half left on our visa, our final destination was St Petersburg. Within a day of arriving we had fallen in love with the city and extended our stay right through to the very last day our visa allowed us in the country. We passed our days exploring the sights, visiting the beautiful cathedrals and the prevailed soviet era architecture where I excitedly lived out the fantasies of the Bronze Horseman tale – (if you haven’t read the novel I recommend it… before the movie comes out later this year!)



The church on spilled blood was a sight to behold, we thought St Basils cathedral was pretty epic but The Church on Silled Blood was next level. The cathedral was built in memory of the assassinated Tsar Alexander II, by his son. The exterior is similar in style to St Basils, with gold spires and coloured domes, though the interior is where this place really shines. Ever pillar, wall and dome is covered with mosaic images. There would be literally millions of tiny coloured squares making up every picture. I can't describe it well enough to explain what this place looks like when you are standing in the middle of it; hopefully some of the pictures will give you an idea - it is truly amazing. (FYI after sustaining some damaged in WW2, it was closed and restored taking 27 years to do so, just to give you an idea to the level of detail on the interior)



We also visited the highly recommended State Hermitage museum. Set within the Winter Palace and four other buildings arranged side by side, the Hermitage is an incredibly large museum building (one of the largest in the world), and houses something like 2.7 million artifacts. They say if you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display, you would need 11 years before you'd seen them all! Not only are there thousands of exhibits, but the museum itself is a work of art, you could literally walk though the museum itself with no exhibits and still be just as amazed with its painted ceilings, mosaic floors and gold plated carvings.



Along with seeing a couple of cathedrals and museums we donned our cultural pants for an evening and attended the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. The theatre was beautiful! With the Nutcracker and Swan Lake sadly sold out we bought tickets to see a performance called ‘The little hump-backed horse’ which simply put, was as strange as it sounds! None of this classical ‘nutcracker’ style ballet, no, we were in for a contemporary treat with a story line beyond our ability to comprehend.
Although we had no idea what was going on for a good couple hours, the performers were very talented and the atmosphere of the place was very glam :-)



Putting all the romance and history aside, we were lucky to land ourselves at a pretty awesome hostel this time – by far our favourite to date. We made friends and with some pretty cool people including a few very charismatic French and some of the Cirque Du Soleil crew.
As we all know, with new friends come new drinking buddies, and as such we managed to pull off a few rather big nights during our stay. What would often start out as a quiet night in with a glass or two of red would quickly escalate into excessive vodka shots and late night kebabs.

One particular evening (to the best I can recall), started in much the same way; a bottle of wine shared amongst friends, a sneaky bottle of vodka appearing and shots consumed, (chased with small salty pickle of course - the Russian way) and a bunch of us having a snowball fights in the street before finding a small bar to continue our late night intoxication with more shots and a few pints of beer thrown in for good mix!


The night was going rather splendidly until Joel showed up with yet another round of shots. I tried to resist his persuasive behaviour but his sheer persistence got the better of me. Five minutes later my night took a horrible turn as I slyly snuck away to the bathroom for a spew and a nap… oops. Sometime later I was woken by a knock at the toilet door and was told we were leaving. I managed to make it home in one piece with vague memory of a second spew once I got back before putting myself to bed.
Waking up the next day was the worst – OMG was I hungover! After a few hours of driving the porcelain bus I spent the entire day on the couch watching movies unable to move, talk, close my eyes or eat anything… it was bad. What’s worse is it just so happened to be the ONLY sunny day we had seen all month and I wasted it indoors – fail!

What should have been viewed as valuable lesson to all seemed to fall on deaf ears/eyes and we had yet a similar situation arise just a couple nights later. I am pleased to say that after my day of death the previous day I was not in the mood for vodka shots and managed to escape the persuasive grasp of peer pressure, choosing a night on the sidelines playing resident DJ and sober go-go dancer instead. The others however managed to polish off 3 bottles of vodka (plus whatever half-drunk bottles had been left behind by former travelers), and the night ended with one poor girl in a repeated state of my own, only worse! After an epic power spew up the walls, (for those who know the tale, think Bali folks), she was found passed out in the shower, where she adamantly stayed for the remainder of the evening… oh dear.

With the coming of Spring meant the celebration of pancake week in Russia, (delicious pancakes smothered in condensed milk… everyday), and an unfortunate end to the snowy season. After a row of just above zero days the streets of the Motherland transformed into a sludge fest of melting snow and slippery ice impossible to walk across without performing the all-skilled sidewalk shuffle. Not only did the turn of the season mean additional cm’s on our waistlines and melting snow beneath our feet but it also brought with it the attack of the killer icicles! Falling from the roof tops as the ice began to melt, large blocks of ice would plummet to the ground in an attempt to take out anyone in its path. We saw one poor man almost get cleaned up by a falling brick of ice as he was leaving his apartment building, it just missed! As if that wasn’t enough excitement for the day I then turned around to cross the street right as a car came speeding past and drenched me in muddy sludge – great! In summary, melting snow is awesome….!


During our last couple of days in St P we visited a Russian flea market (swap meet). Though we didn't buy anything it was an experience in itself just walking past all the sellers stalls (if you could call them that). Large numbers of Russian's set our tarps and blankets everywhere putting out every conceivable item up for sale. I'm not sure what they are thinking trying to sell some of the items that they put out; I for one dont know what person would ever pay anything for any of the following items we saw... half a flip mobile phone, empty peanut tin, empty sardine tin, broken used electric razor, undies with holes in them, used electric tooth brush plus many other items not even fit for a salvos bin. Definitely a crazy population haha.


Come time to make our way to the airport I’m not sure either of us were quite ready to leave this wonderful city. It has been the highlight of our Russia and I would encourage anyone to visit given the opportunity. We’ll definitely be coming back here, next time to visit the white nights of summer! But for now it’s time for our next milestone in our travels… London-town!

Джоэл & Рэне
(Joel & Renée)

Posted by Joel-Renee 15:52 Archived in Russia Comments (12)

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