I had mixed feelings about Mongolia (probably entirely due to being sick during my time there) so I was very excited to cross the border into Russia. But I wasn’t prepared for quite how giddy finally being in Russia would make me. I couldn’t stop smiling, and already by my second day in Russia I was dreading the day my month-long visa would expire.
The last time I was so excited to arrive in a new country was when I went to Iran, but that was a trip I had been dreaming about for a few years, not over a decade.
It’s always seemed crazy to me that Russia is such an enormous country, but apart from its strong presence in my history and literature textbooks growing up and now in news reports, Russia has always seemed strangely absent from most of contemporary western pop culture.
And then I went to university and like probably every philosophy major ever I fell hard for Dostoevsky, so I just had to study Russian, even though I would surely never use it in the real world.
Until now, whoop whoop!
Actually, that’s not true at all. In the past few years Russian has been loads more useful than other languages I’ve studied (I’m looking at you, Tibetan). That’s of course partly because my recent travels have taken me to a lot of former Soviet countries, but I also found myself using it in Israel, Egypt, and even Greece! So tell your kids, people, forget French and Spanish, go study Russian!
That statement is totally going to get my blog flagged by the U.S. government, ugh. (As if all my posts on Iran haven’t blacklisted me already.)
Anyway, I’m rambling, probably because Dan and I are sitting in a Siberian train station right now waiting for our train, which won’t arrive for a few hours even though it’s already past my bedtime, bah. So of course I’m blogging, while Dan is diligently practicing his Norwegian verb conjugations (in preparation for our move to Norway this summer!).
Ulan Ude was our first stop in Russia, though sadly we only stayed one night there. I say sadly, because when the directions to our hostel led us to a square with a giant Lenin’s head (the biggest in the world!) and illuminated ice sculptures and ice slides I realized we had stumbled on a very special place.
We didn’t have time to test out the slides for ourselves – plus I may have been a bit intimidated by the locals who could slide down while standing upright – but we did pause to take some photos!
Like many of the cities on our Trans-Siberian itinerary, Ulan Ude was closed to foreigners during Soviet times, reopening in 1991. While it’s described as one of Russia’s most “Asian-like” cities, I was immediately enchanted by the city’s very European-feeling architecture. I guess after so long in Asia I’m a little starved for anything remotely European.
After too short a stay in Ulan Ude, we caught the train to Irkutsk. We had decided to spend a night in Ulan Ude and get the day train to Irkutsk instead of going overnight straight from the border because most of the ride goes along Lake Baikal. So of course we wanted to do the journey in daylight, because LAKE BAIKAL!
At least 2/3 of our meals in Russia have consisted of bread, sausage and cheese and I’m still not sick of it.
Before exploring lake Baikal in person we had decided to spend a night in Irkutsk, so after a couple of hours I watched Baikal disappear behind us.
Dan had just finished reading The Great Railway Bazaar (in a similar cliché I was reading Doctor Zhivago) and warned me that Paul Theroux describes Irkutsk with its floodlit factory chimneys as having a similar appearance to a concentration camp. Now normally I would dismiss anyone who describes Tehran as “a place of no antiquity and little interest” as an old grump, but in this case he might not have been wholly wrong. Entering Irkutsk was a little… gray.
Luckily the next day would take us to a beautiful town on the coast of Lake Baikal. Stay tuned for tons of photos of one of the most stunning places in the world! Read about our time on Lake Baikal here
Where to Stay in Ulan Ude
In Ulan Ude we stayed at Traveler’s House Hostel, which was just a few minutes’ walk from the train station. The rooms were nice and there was a great hostel vibe here – we met a lot of cool travelers. Check current rates and availability here
My friends recently did this same trip on a bigger budget, so if you’d rather stay in a hotel I can also recommend staying at the Hotel Baikal Plaza, which is right on the Central Square and has a lovely old Russian feel (and apparently the restaurant is really good!). Check current rates and availability here
Where to Stay in Irkutsk
In Irkutsk we stayed at Rolling Stones Hostel, which is in a good location and has nice clean rooms, but the best part was definitely the guys who run it. They were so nice and enthusiastic and gave us lots of helpful advice for our trip to Baikal as well. Check current rates and availability here
And if you’d rather stay at a hotel, my friends recommend staying at the Boutique Hotel Marussia, which they said was the prettiest hotel they stayed at in Russia. It’s in an old wooden house in the center of town, with beautiful decor and a delicious breakfast. Check current rates and availability here