To be honest – Russia was never on my bucket list. Be it because of the political situation or the fact that it is such a big country, I somehow never felt the urge to go there. And yet, last summer I found myself in Siberia in the middle of nowhere on the shores of Lake Baikal. How did I even get here?
It was a rather spontaneous trip or as spontaneous it can be if you need to apply for two Visas from Russia and China. My passport arrived half a day before my flight was scheduled and until the last minute I was not sure if I was going to make it. I started my five-week trip in Beijing, planned to cross Mongolia and spend the rest of the time crossing Russia from Lake Baikal to Moscow.
As you might have guessed by now I traveled by train with the famous Trans-Siberian Railway – the ultimate travel adventure for many. The railway network makes it possible to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, but it also extends to China, North Korea and Mongolia. The main tracks were built between 1891 and 1916 and the network is constantly growing ever since. After I came back I experienced that many people have a very romantic picture of the Trans-Siberian Railway in mind. They probably imaging one old train traveling back and forth between Moscow and Beijing. Don’t get me wrong, this is perfectly possible as well. But as you can imagine it is fairly expensive and less flexible than simply taking local trains.
Another misconception many travelers seem to have is that the tickets cost you a fortune which is not necessarily the case. The Russian Railway recently launched their website in English and it is now perfectly possible to book the tickets yourself – even last minute. I chose to go a little off the beaten Trans-Siberia track and booked local trains between destinations I never heard of before. Being able to navigate the page effortless is in fact a bigger step than you might imagine. Before it was basically impossible to book the tickets yourself, so you had to contact one of the many agents. This required that you fix the dates already and book everything in advance. As you can imagine, it took away all spontaneity and to a certain extend also the fun.
After two weeks in China and Mongolia, I finally crossed the Russian boarder. I am a nature lover and planned to spend the first week in Eastern Siberia on the shores of Lake Baikal. From Ulan-Ude I took a local bus to a small dusty town called Ust-Barguzin. On the way there, I had the lake to my left and an endless pine forest to my right. Occasionally we passed a small village – I was thrilled. In Ust-Barguzin I stayed in a guest house but when I arrived nobody answered the door. So, I sat down and waited under the curious eyes of all dogs living in that street. A few minutes later a car showed up with an older couple. They did not speak much English, I don’t speak Russian but somehow, they communicated that the owner is a teacher in the local school and will come by in a bit.
The next few days I spent a wonderful time there and it is definitely my highlight from the trip. During the day I walked around in town, went to the lake a couple of times to swim and in the evening and got hearty Russian meals. After dinner it was sauna time – I felt like living the Russian countryside life.
My Trans-Siberian trip is definitely something I will always remember. At any time, I felt safe and taken care of. However, I would advise to bring a friend. Not for security reasons but simply to have someone to talk to. It can get quite lonely out there since very little people are comfortable speaking English.
Russia might seem as an odd travel destination at first, but it is absolutely worth it and especially interesting for nature lovers as well as people who are seeking an off the beaten-track destination.