Kazan

Brief history

Unlike other Russian cities, Kazan has a long history that dates back to at least a millennium. In 1000 AD Kazan was founded in the Volga Bulgaria, and soon became the capital of the region. Then, it was incorporated by the Golden Horde to become an independent khanate in 1438. The city later collapsed under the troops of Ivan the Terrible, that gave a new, Russian, face to the ancient city.

Why you should stop there

Kazan is a vibrant city, full of young people, bars, cafés and cultural attractions. It is the capital of the Tatar Authonomous Republic and an important University center, that had among its scholars Lev Tolstoy and Lenin. Its inhabitants are Tatars and Russians, making  Kazan a multi-ethnic city, where Mosques and Orthodox Churches coexist with each others and form a dynamic society of perfectly integrated ethnic groups and religions.

Time Zone

UTC +3 (= Moscow time)

What to see

The Kremlin. The beautiful white Kremlin alone is worth the trip here. It is part of the UNESCO world heritage and it contains both the main Mosque and the Cathedral of Kazan. In addition, you will have an amazing view of the surroundings of the city. At the opposite site of the hill, take a look at the modern and extravagant Agricultural Palace, with its strange tree at the entrance.

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The Ethnographic Museum. We don’t usually  suggest museums, but this one, in front of the Kremlin’s entrance, is interesting to understand the history of Kazan and its multi-ethnic population.

Ulitsa Baumana. It is the equivalent of Moscow’s Arbat, a long, pleasant street full of restaurants, shops and bars that is the center of the city’s nightlife.

Sleep

Okay places: Backpack Hostel Kazan (ul. Baumana 74, less than 10 EUR/night) ; Wings Hostel (ul. Chernyshevskogo 16, less than 10 EUR/night) ; Kazanskoe Podvorye (ul. Batman 68, about 10 EUR/night).

Perm

Brief History

Perm was founded by Peter the Great in 1723 and during the Soviet period it became an important military center under the name of Molotov. This city inspired – in a not properly positive sense – both Chekhov and Pasternak.

Why you should stop there

The city itself is nothing special, a usual Soviet-style city, but it’s a good base if you want to visit the attractions around it, such as the Perm-36 labor camp, the wooden architecture of Khokhlovka and the ice-cave in Kungur.

Time Zone

UTC +5 (= Moscow +2)

How to get around

Trams and buses operate from 5:30 to 12:30 AM, tickets can only be purchased from the driver or conductor.

What to see

The Museum of Contemporary Art “PERMM”. It contains the avanguarde art of Perm, in the effort to make the city a cultural center.

The Khokhlovka Architecture-Ethnographic Museum. 45 km from Perm you will find this collection of wooden buildings from the 19th and 20th century. Check the bus schedule in advance, since only a few buses go there every day.

Perm-36. This site was a labor camp for political dissidents during the Soviet period. Now, it has been turned into a museum of that dark side of Russian history. Before going there, check if it is still open, since as far as we know the museum was closed in June 2015.

Kungur ice-cave. You can explore the cave network of 1.5 km with unique ice formations, waterfalls and frozen rivers. Entrance every two hours, in guided tours.

How to buy tickets

And now on to the most important question: How do I buy my train tickets? And, most importantly: what is the CHEAPEST way to do it?

There are many options to buy tickets, yet, like most things in life, the easiest ones do not happen to be the cheapest, on the contrary, if you are brave enough and determined enough to battle it up against the infamous Russian language and book as any Russian would do, you will end up sparing more than a few bucks!

There are indeed different agencies through which you can buy your ticket, all of which work in English, yet all of which apply commissions. They basically buy your ticket for you, and then they will either send it to you or they will set it up so you will be able to pick it up at the station. It depends. Here are two such websites:

1-Real Russia

2- Russian railways

Again, these are travel agencies, so it is really up to you and your budget, but, assuming you wanna go cheap, we suggest the following method, a.k.a. using the real Russian railways website: www.rzd.ru.

Warning: this rad website does not allow to buy tickets before 45 days from the day of the trip, so you can book as early as a month and a half before you plan on leaving. Also, the website is ALL in Russian, and the ONLY way to book tickets is to use the Russian version. I know, mission impossible? *** (UPDATE at the bottom of this page) ***

Maybe, but not if you follow our wonderful tutorial! Here is what you’ll have to do:

1: Gather all the patience you can find.

2: Follow the steps as shown in the screenshots below.

3: Should you have any problem, doubt or just need support: feel free to contact us! We will be happy to help you.

Okay. Ready? Here we go.

This window will open:

1-Registration

  • The first thing you have to to is Register:

2-Registration

  • Once you’ve done this, just login

3-Login

  • And now on to searching for trains.

4-Search.png

  • Go on google translate and get the names of the cities you want in Russian, then copy paste them in the apposite tab:

5-FindGoogle

  • Like this:

5-Find

  • A new window will open. If you scroll down, you’ll see a list of trains and relative details and prices. Important: the departure and arrival times all refer to Moscow time! So if you are looking at a train from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk, for instance, keep that in mind! Russia is huge, so check the time frames!

6-Search

7-Search

  • Choose the train you want and tick on it, then continue.

8-Search

  • You will now have to choose your seat/berth/class. We strongly advise you to choose platzkarny: it’s third class, so it might not seem like the best option, but it actually is, for plenty of reasons: 1- way cheaper; 2- the quality difference from the kupe is not that big: instead of a 4-bed cabin, you’ll have 6-bed compartments along an open corridor, which in the summer it’s way airier which (definitely a plus); 3- you get to meet more people and for women who travel alone it is definitely safer, exactly because it is all open so you won’t risk ending up in a closed cabin with 3 weirdos.

9-Choose

You now have to insert your personal information:10-personal info

  • Here is an example:

10-Passenger info

Continue to check the details of your reservation:11-to payment

  • Proceed to payment:

12-payment

And… done! What now? Print your ticket and you are all set! A window should open with it, but if for some reason this does not happen or you cannot find it, you can always go to your profile settings, each reservation gets automatically saved in there. Here how to do:

Click on your name (top right), and then down on orders:

13-order

It will take you to this window:

14-ticket

  • Click where indicated and you’ll be able to see your ticket! This is what a ticket normally looks like:

15-ticket

  • Print it and… congratulations! You now just need to show it before boarding the train!

See? Wasn’t so hard after all, was it? Yes it was, we know, but at least you got to experience the real Russian way to book tickets and probably saved lots of money that you can now use on a stash of beer for the train (Shhhhh, that’s forbidden, we said nothing about it).

*** UPDATE ***

Good news! So apparently the Russians FINALLY updated their website and created a somewhat functioning English version for reserving tickets. You can find it at this link! It should work relatively smoothly, and well, in case it doesn’t, you have the tutorial for the Russian version right above!

Olkhon Island

Lake Baikal is a must-go on the Trans-Siberian route, being the most attractive and most fascinating place in Siberia. It is the biggest lake in the world for water capacity, more than all the 5 US lakes together. It is also a magical place to visit…

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The West coast is the more frequented and it is reachable from Irkutsk by bus. The East coast is reachable from Ulan-Ude. To get to the Northern shore, take the BAM railway until Severobaikalsk. The problem of the Lake is that there is no road that connects all the shores of the lake. So, if you want to go from Listyanka to Olkhon, for instance, you will have to go back to Irkutsk and take a bus from there to the island.

If you take the train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, you will be able to see the lake from the train. We strongly recommend you to do that: the view is amazing! We took the night train and woke up at 5 am to see the sunrise on the Baikal… There are no words to describe how wonderful the view was.

One must-see location on the Baikal is Olkhon Island. To reach it, take a marshrutka from the Irkutsk bus station. The trip lasts from 6 to 8 hours and the schedule of departure changes frequently, so we suggest you go to the station the day before, ask for departure times and book the tickets in advance at the ticket office. The marshrutka will take you to the village of Khuzhir, the only inhabited center of the island. From there, you can go to the beach, visit the Shaman rocks and book tours around the island.

Spoiler alert! If you like surprises, don’t read this!

In our opinion, it is better to go to Olkhon without knowing anything about it, so your experience will be authentic as possible. You just gotta trust us on this one, go there and you’ll see.

However if you want to know something more about the island, check our diary page.

A deserted village, a sandy and rocky panorama, wild cows, horses and stray dogs, no type of night illumination whatsoever: the perfect setting for a horror movie is what’s waiting for you on this amazing island, the 5th center of Shaman Energy in the world.

In winter, until April, the lake is completely frozen, while the ice melts around May. If you go there in the summer, you may even try to put your legs in the water, and, even though Russians even swim in there, we warn you: it is freezing.

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Shaman rocks

What to see

We strongly recommend to take the one-day guided tour around the island. It costs around 800 roubles, but it is really worth it. A old and super-resistent Russian Lada minivan will take you to the Northern point of the island, from where you’ll be able to admire the immensity of the lake and, if you’re lucky, even spot some Nerpa seals resting on the rocks.

Go to the Shaman rocks in Kuzhir, on the Maloye More (Small Sea) shore of the lake. Shamans from all over the world gather here to hold ceremonies and celebrate the energy concentration of this sacred place. Attention: do not touch the “lentochki” (the colourful laces around the trees and sticks) – it is said to bring bad luck.

A good idea while on the island is to rent a bike and ride around the village and the amazing beaches.

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Sleep

The place where most foreigners stay in Olkhon is called “Nikita’s”, a nice guesthouse with a bar, restaurant and curious wooden architecture. Rather expensive but worth it if you want a private bathroom and running water.

Otherwise, if you want to spend less and are apt to adaptation, take a cheap guesthouse in the village (ice-cold showers, no proper toilets, except from some hole in the ground with a disgusting excrement smell, and very bad internet connection). Still, despite the difficulties, we believe it is the best way to enjoy the atmosphere of the island. We stayed at “Bereg Nadezhdi”. 
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Soon, enjoy your stay here and.. watch out for the cows!

Vladivostok

Brief History

Founded in 1860, Vladivostok was initially an important naval base of the Czarist period, and it later turned into an important railway station, at the Eastern end of the Trans-Siberian rail. Since then, it became a commercial center at the crossroads of Russia, China and Japan, having maintained this role until now.

Why you should go there

Vladivostok is the mythical end point of the Trans-Siberian main route, a place where you go and say “Yes, I did it!”. It is the last stop of your epic trip, a pleasant city to walk around and to admire the nature of the Russian Far East, the desolate lands and the bays in the Pacific Ocean. It is also the major connection in the area, from where you can continue your trip to Japan by boat.

Time Zone

UTC +10 (= Moscow +7)

How to get around

The city centre is only a short walk from the train station, and most of the sights can be easily reached on foot. Still, since Vladivostok is situated on steep hills, walking can be physically demanding but buses and marshutkas are available. Beware of the frequent traffic jams though!

What to see

City center: walk along the three main avenues to see the ancient czarist buildings near Ploshad Revolutsii. Ulitsa Fokina is the correspondent of Moscow’s Arbat Street, that leads to the main beach, bars and shashlik kiosks.

A view from the top: if you take the funicular up to the top of the city, you will have a great view of the whole bay.

S-56 Submarine: take a look at this submarine from the WWII period.

Sleep

Teplo Hostel (ul. Posetskaja 16, about 10 EUR/night) ; Gallery and More Hostel (Admirala Fokina st. 4B, about 10 EUR/night).