OK. YOU’VE DECIDED you want to take the world’s longest and most famous train ride. But aside from playing cards, drinking tea (ahem, vodka), and eating noodles on the train, what are you going to do? Unless you really have to be somewhere, I highly recommend at least a few stops along the journey.
Hardly a quick side trip, Kizhi Island — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is a bit off the beaten track. It’s most easily visited from Petrozavodsk, which is an overnight train ride from St. Petersburg. Yes, most people begin their Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow, but I say if you’re going to do it, go all out and start from St. Pete.
From Petrozavodsk, it’s a quick ferry ride (or snowcat in the winter) to this open-air museum of fantastic wooden architecture.
The Transconfiguration Church, with its 22 domes, is the obvious eye-pleaser. Russia’s oldest wooden church, dating back to the 14th century — the Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus — is also a highlight. It’s crazy to think that these wooden structures use no nails or metal at all.
The reconstructed village of Karelia offers some insight into the traditions and life of peasants in the Karelia region. While there is no overnight accommodation for visitors, there are some residents living on the island.
Kizhi is also accessible as a port of call for cruises between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Note: Smoking on the island is prohibited!
You’ll most likely be spending time in Moscow. If you want to get away from the hectic city for a breather, a five-hour bus ride will get you to the little church town of Suzdal. There are more churches than you can shake a stick at, and they are mostly architecturally varied. At one point in time there was one church per every 12 residents.
It’s a beautiful (and I dare say romantic) town to stroll around, with its colourful little houses, green meadows, and peaceful streams. Watch old Ladas sputter past you and chickens peck religiously on front lawns.
Suzdal is part of the Golden Ring, a chain of towns northeast of Moscow. Each one played an important part in Russian history and culture, including a “significant role in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church,” so you may also want to work more of these into your itinerary.
A tick over 4000 kms east of Moscow is the city of Krasnoyarsk. After being on the train for 65 hours you’ll want a chance to give your legs a good, long stretch. This is the perfect place for it.
The Stolby Nature Reserve can be reached by city bus and is home to the famous “pillars.” Scattered throughout the forest are tall and unusually shaped rock structures; they are the object of tradition and folklore to the residents of Krasnoyarsk.
They also make a great base for practicing free climbing — rock climbing without a rope — which we gave a shot on a couple of the smaller rocks. Just be careful; going up is one thing, coming down is a bit tougher.
Everyone stops in Irkutsk; it’s just something you do. But not everyone makes the trip to Olkhon Island, a small piece of land in Lake Baikal.
A bus (or van) transports you six hours away from Irkutsk, along both smooth and bumpy roads, and across the water on a small ferry, before unloading you in Kuzhir. Kuzhir is the largest settlement on the island which I heard just got electricity in 2005. Better late than never.
Nikita’s Homestay is the place to go for accommodation. Try to get into one of the cozy little huts with a wood-burning stove. The costs include all meals, which are wonderful and usually feature the native Baikal fish, omul.
They’ll even pack up your lunch in a take-away bag if you want to go off and explore the island. There are sandy beaches, rolling hills, and taiga to keep you busy. And when you’re out there, stop and listen to the silence. It’s golden.
The only way to shower at Nikita’s is banya style. These are Russian saunas, where you sweat yourself silly for a while, then pour cool water from a barrel over yourself (or your partner) with a big ladle. Soap up, rinse, repeat. This is best done late in the evening because you will want to sleep right after. If only I could build one of these in my flat.
Of course, there are numerous other stops you can make along the way to break up your trip. If the thought of three days on the train between Moscow and Krasnoyarsk has you feeling claustrophobic already, you may want to consider overnighting at Ekatinerinburg, Omsk, and/or Novosibirsk.
Don’t overstay your visa
Be very careful of your visa situation. A Finnish couple we hosted received their Russian visa, valid for a week. Even though the embassy assured them it was alright before they left, they were detained and extorted for ridiculous sums of money as they tried to exit Russia after their visas expired.
Don’t make the same mistake. Make sure your visa is good for a month and get out of dodge before it expires. It’s not a game worth playing.
Don’t think you can do this independently, with not one single agent’s help? Think again: Why You Should Travel Independently on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
For detailed blog entries about my trip in late 2007, the first post is here.
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Carlo is a Managing Editor at Matador and co-founder of Confronting Love. He blogs about travel, life, and creativity at Vagabonderz.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He lives in Nelson, British Columbia.